THE RECURRING MOTIF Canadian director Atom Egoyan uses to shape "The Sweet Hereafter," his subtly shattering movie about the aftermath of a winter tragedy that kills almost all the children in a small rural town, is the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It may seem like an all-too-obvious choice -- one of the central characters reads the story in bits and pieces in voice-over throughout the film -- until you realize that although it's the children who are gone, it's the adults left behind who are bruised and dazed, in the thrall of a spell that can't be broken. "The Sweet Hereafter" doesn't bow to the usual hand-wringing that often accompanies stories about the death of children, the kinds of stories that, when they creep up on you on the late-night news, make your heart sink into the pit of your stomach and change the shape and texture of the last hours of your day.
Without glossing over the loss of promise that the death of a child represents, Egoyan acknowledges the shock and helplessness that we, as observers (news watchers or moviegoers or parents), feel in the wake of hearing these kinds of stories, and then moves on. He etches with subtlety and grace the approximate shape of the void the lost children leave behind. Elegiac and yet straightforward as haiku, "The Sweet Hereafter" is a study of the piercing, intersecting angles of grief rendered in miniature -- a reminder of how, although we all know the basic characteristics of sorrow, when you look closely, you see a network of feelings as individual and mysterious, and as unchartable, as ice crystals.
Based on the novel by Russell Banks, "The Sweet Hereafter" tells a handful of stories from different points of view, the fragments of these tales shifting backward and forward in time until the mosaic is complete. Lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) descends on the town after the accident, hoping to encourage its residents to bring a lawsuit either against the town itself (he's going for "deep pockets") or possibly against the company that manufactured the school bus in which the children were killed. Most of the grief-numbed parents are willing to accept the accident as a cruel twist of fate and not the result of negligence, but Stephens works away at them like a wood-boring insect, assuring them that he's sympathetic to their suffering and urging them to "let me direct your rage."
Stephens does have some sense of their suffering and confusion: His own daughter is a junkie who calls him regularly on his cell phone to alternately berate him and plead for his help. Torn by his urge to save her and his fear that he can't possibly do so, he never knows how to respond to her. But what keeps Stephens' plight from being merely a handy device (especially given that Holm's performance is somewhat stiff and methodical) is one wrenching story he tells in flashback: He recalls how as a toddler, his daughter was accidentally poisoned by spider bites, and how, after phoning the doctor, he was urged to get her to the hospital right away -- and was also instructed that he might need to perform an emergency tracheotomy to save her life. "I was prepared to go all the way," Stephens states flatly as he relays the story to his seatmate on a plane. But Egoyan gives us a visual even more devastating than Stephens' words: We see a reasonably calm, round-faced little girl lying back on a car seat as her father sings to her; a small knife, glistening and upright, stands ready, inches away from her face. And in that way, Stephens' own experience meshes with the silent, deafening nightmare the town's bereaved parents are living out: It's an acknowledgment that caring for our children is the ultimate unbearable burden, that it carries with it the possibility that our courage will be tested beyond its known limits.
Egoyan is a very deliberate filmmaker, and sometimes even his solemn restraint has an air of calculation about it. But for the most part, he's dedicated to the gravity of his story. The movie has a crispness about it, an unwillingness to succumb to sentimentality, that's underscored by the snowy fir-dotted landscapes captured by cinematographer Paul Sarossy. The visuals conjure a sense of isolation but also shimmer with unexplainable, icy beauty.
Egoyan has structured "The Sweet Hereafter" elegantly, making the discrete stories compact and meaningful in their brevity and allowing individual performances to carry the movie's weight. When the bus driver, Dolores (Gabrielle Rose), who's survived the tragedy, recounts the hours leading up to the accident, she speaks of the children in the present tense, but then just as naturally breaks off and says of one boy, "He would have made a wonderful man." And when Billy (Bruce Greenwood, in a compact, gut-wrenching performance), a widowed father who used to follow the school bus for a ways every day so he could wave to his children, breaks off his affair with a woman in the town after the accident, he captures the depth of his own despair -- a despair whose beginning stretches back to the earlier loss of his wife -- in a single sentence. He says that what he'll remember best about their affair are the nights he sat waiting for her, "smoking a cigarette, remembering the life I had before."
But if the movie belongs to any one actor, it's to the young Sarah Polley as Nicole, a teenager who manages to survive the crash, though she's confined to a wheelchair. When we first see Polley, it's the summer before the accident, and she's singing and playing guitar on the stage of a county fair. A handsome youngish man (Tom McCamus) -- her father, who, we find out later, has drawn her into an incestuous relationship -- watches her with obvious lovesickness and admiration. The story of Nicole's abuse is just one of the movie's deft undercurrents, but it's also the underpinning of one of the movie's most shocking moments: When we realize what's happening to Nicole, we feel deeply for her, we may even feel protective of her -- but we just can't bring ourselves to pity her. That's because Polley -- who, with her wide-set eyes and open-air beauty resembles a younger Uma Thurman -- imbues Nicole with so much self-knowledge and assurance that even though she's still an adolescent, she seems more adult than anyone else in the movie.
Even as Nicole is a victim of her father's weakness, she understands it much better than he does -- and in the swirl of despair and emotional devastation that surrounds her in the community, she more than anyone is equipped to survive. Polley, with her intense, direct gaze and her understated line readings, cuts to the center of "The Sweet Hereafter." Without a word, her Nicole manages to convey her outrage at Stephens' desire to reduce the tragedy to an act of negligence, recognizing that this only diminishes the sadness, horror and needlessness of the event. When we see Nicole on that stage (it's Polley herself singing, and her pure, clear voice is just one highlight of Michael Danna's lovely, somber score), she at first looks older than she really is. But even when we see her more closely, and we realize how young she is, we still don't know how to categorize her. We don't realize until the end that in the ghostly, fractured fairy tale of "The Sweet Hereafter," Nicole is neither lost child nor spellbound adult. She can't be reduced to a symbol of anything -- except maybe the sound of blood rushing, quietly but insistently, through the sites of our broken hearts.