The Sweet Hereafter As A Canadian Movie

Essay, Research Paper

The mood established by the opening scene is maintained throughout the film. The Sweet Hereafter has a very calm feel to it throughout. The action is not fast-paced or thrilling; the movie?s appeal is more related to its characters and its emotion than to its action. Nonetheless, I found it to be an irresistible film.

The plot of The Sweet Hereafter centres around a tragic bus accident in a small town. Many directors and writers, given the same storyline, would have hit the audience hard by packing the scenes with teary speeches and emotional climaxes. I didn?t find that this movie followed that oft-used formula. Instead, it presented hard-to-categorize characters and posed hard-to-answer questions. That?s what caught my attention most about it and why I enjoyed it so much. There is no clear protagonist, no clear right or wrong answers, and no clear, hard-and-fast central plot. The movie forced me to draw my own conclusions and make up my own mind.

One of the most captivating things about this film, in my opinion, lies in some of the scenes that strike you emotionally . . . without hitting you over the head and yelling “Be sad!” One example of this is the scene when Mitchell Stephens, the lawyer who is attempting to persuade the shattered citizens of the town to file a lawsuit for compensation, recalls a near-disaster that occurred when he was much younger. His young daughter, Zoey, has accidentally been poisoned by spiders, and the doctor tells him that he must rush her to the hospital (forty miles away). But if Zoey stops breathing, says the doctor, Stephens must perform an emergency tracheotomy on her. I found one of the most powerful shots of the film to be the one of the round-faced, serious toddler in the front seat, sitting in her daddy?s lap as he sings her a lullaby and a knife hovers inches from her head. It is these emotive scenes which made the film so hard-hitting.

The Sweet Hereafter did not conform to the typical Hollywood style. Just about every Hollywood rule in the book was either bent or broken. Chronological time sequence was not followed ? the movie jumped from year to year (though somehow still clinging to continuity). The actual bus crash around which the entire movie is centred is not shown until halfway through the film. The timeline moves back and forth seamlessly, without confusing the audience or losing credibility.

In contrast to many films, there was no clear hero or villain of the story, no leading lady, no real definable climax. The bus accident itself is not presented in gory detail. In fact, little detail is shown at all. I had been expecting a huge, melodramatic tearjerker of a scene that would shatter my sleep patterns for weeks. Instead I got a shot from the viewpoint of a powerless father atop a hill, looking down at the bus as it sinks into the lake. The scene did not lose any punch for its lack of visible bloodshed, though, as we have seen some of the aftermath of the accident at this point and it retains its power; in fact, the buildup is all the more suspenseful because we know what is coming.

There are many other ways in which this film avoids the common sentimentality of most Hollywood films. Much of the cinematography and the actual camera work is very different from your average American flick. Most movies avoid “boring” nature footage, other than the occasional establishing shot. Not so in The Sweet Hereafter. There are numerous shots of fir-covered mountains, slow pans across snowy landscapes, and long shots of vehicles moving on high hilltop roads. This cinematography seems to be very Canadian in its affinity with nature. I think it contributes to a sense of isolation or loneliness in the film, and adds to the mood rather than taking away from the action. Another difference in the cinematography is in the “two-shots.” Whenever two characters were shown, the camera would move from one to the other. Occasionally it would show both characters, but the picture would be framed so that only half of each face is shown. The general form for interplay between two characters is to show one and then cut to the other, or to show both. In The Sweet Hereafter, the camera does not remain static during these scenes. I don?t know if it could really be said that this added to the movie, except that it was interesting, and nice to see something different.

In addition, Hollywood movies typically avoid strong metaphors and parallelism, striving instead for pure entertainment. In that sense, The Sweet Hereafter goes very much against the grain. Though this may seem like a contradiction, I found it to be a very literary film. This likely had something to do with the fact that the film was based on a book. The feeling came through particularly in the parallels it draws between the tragic bus accident and the children?s book The Pied Piper. I liked the analogous reference, though I occasionally found it to be bordering on the unsubtle. There are other correlations. The disaster with the bus is followed by Stephens?s flashback to the incident with his daughter and the spider. The deaths of the town?s children could be compared to Stephens?s loss of his daughter, a longtime drug addict who calls only for money. It is this parallel structure, I think, that gives the movie its literary feel. Whether this is a Canadian outlook or more related to director Atom Egoyan is open to interpretation — I would opt for the latter.

The acting in the movie is also different from that of most Hollywood cinema. Performances are very much understated, especially in Ian Holm?s portrayal of Mitchell Stephens and in Sarah Polley?s performance as Nicole Burnell, the tragic teenaged victim of incest who survives the bus crash. The actors convey feeling with subtlety — most of the acting is done in facial expressions and an ostensible stoic lack of emotion which has more impact than many loud, teary sequences in American films. This could be considered archetypally Canadian acting when one takes into account our reputation for being an impassive people.

Even the ending of the movie has a calm feeling to it and is very different from most Hollywood endings. Its feel is very similar to the opening sequence in that it is not dramatic or action-packed. It does not include any conclusive event. There is no real sense of closure in the end of the film, in much the same way that the opening has little sense of introduction. There is that same sensation of the placid, life-goes-on attitude which characterized the film.

The demands made on the audience by The Sweet Hereafter are quite different from Hollywood tragedies such as Philadelphia or Titanic. The story is there for you, but it is there in a vastly different way. It is there for you to interpret, not forced down your throat or handed to you on a silver platter with the theme, moral, and good guy/bad guy neatly stapled to the side. The audience is led to the story, allowed to view it in its entirety, and then is left to make up its own mind. Nothing is supplied except the story and the characters themselves — everything else is left for the audience to choose. Naturally, there is a clear message, but in a world where the father who leads his daughter into an incestuous relationship is a sympathetic character there really are no distinct divisions.

On the whole, I would recommend this movie to just about anyone. I very much enjoyed it and I found I could relate to it, if to the characters more than to the situations. I question the idea that I relate to it more than an American would, but I think that the fact that I am Canadian could very well have been a factor in my feelings toward the film. Perhaps I did not enjoy the film more than an American would have — perhaps I simply enjoyed it differently.


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