Published December 1, 1997
The Sweet Hereafter, written and directed by the Armenian- Canadian director of Exotica, Atom Egoyan, is a movingly updated version of the Pied Piper story only without the rats. This time the Pied Piper is not a businessman or a moralist but mere capricious fate which causes a school bus to run off the road and into a frozen lake where most of the children of a small Canadian town are drowned. Into this scene of appalling bereavement comes Ian Holm as a lawyer, Mitchell Stevens, who is trying to drum up business. Although it is far from clear whom he might hope to sue — the bus manufacturer? the school board? — he manages to persuade most of the parents of the dead children to join in his action. Naturally he stands to collect one third of any settlement.
But he is not altogether in it for the money. He is also the Pied Piper’s abandoned sense of justice, a man who is trying to make sense out of a senseless world by means of a desperate search for somebody, anybody, who can be made to pay when something bad happens. He has no faith except his absolute faith in guilt. “There is no such thing as an accident,” he tells Dolores, the bus driver. There must always be something that someone did wrong to make it happen. The thought that the accident might have been owing to nothing but a clumsy, stupid, unnecessary chance, that mere blind bad luck took away their children, is what neither he nor the most of the parents can bear to contemplate.
For he has another point of contact with the townspeople. His own daughter is a drug addict and has just learned that she is HIV positive. This doesn’t make any sense either. Why should a child raised with so much love (as we are told in flashback) have gone to the bad? The undeserved pain of it forms the bond between him and the parents. “We have all lost children,” he explains to the one parent who holds out against joining in his suit — a widower named Billy (Bruce Greenwood) who has lost his only children, boy and girl twins, in the accident. “They are dead to us, they kill each other in the street, or they’re wandering around the mall like zombies. Something terrible has happened to take our children away. It’s too late. They’re gone.”
It is for this monstrous injustice that Stevens plays the avenging Pied Piper. In another flashback, to the night before the accident, we hear the lovely and prodigiously talented teenage singer, Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), who is Billy’s babysitter, reading to his doomed twins the Pied Piper story. The little boy asks her why the Pied Piper didn’t just use his magic powers to make the city fathers pay him, instead of leading all the children away. “Because he wanted to punish them,” Nicole explains.
“So he was mean?” asks the boy.
“No. Not mean. Just very, very angry.”
Nicole plays the part of the little lame boy in the story. She survives the accident but is paralyzed from the waist down. Here is where the film almost goes off the rails. It should be enough for her that she suffers from her handicap as well as the guilt of separation from her playmates and the sense of her exclusion from the “sweet hereafter” on the other side of the door in the mountain promised by the Piper, where they play happily for eternity. But Egoyan feels the need to pile on the symbolism, and to make the sweet hereafter also the lost innocence taken from her by Sam, her incestuous father (Tom McCamus). The theme of child abuse really ought to be given a rest by the movies. Its appearance there has become, like that of the Holocaust or the assassination of JFK, just a cheap means of generating emotion. And bad emotion, like bad money, tends to drive out good.
But the film survives this false note. In the dénouement Nicole destroys the suit by lying at her deposition and saying that the bus driver was going 72 miles an hour (much too fast on the snowy road), even though Billy was following the bus in his pickup and knew that it was only going 50. And the bus driver’s insurance coverage doesn’t amount to much. Nicole’s father had been one of the parents most greedy to get his hands on the money. Without quite understanding, Stevens must admit defeat, and says, as Nicole leaves the room: “Any kid who would do that to her father is not normal, Sam.” The ironies involved in these two embittered fathers trying to establish a standard of normality, and of the symbol of blighted innocence standing in the the way of their desperate but twisted desire for justice, gives an oddly upbeat ending to this terrific film.