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Paying the Piper

Atom Egoyan asks who's to blame for a tragedy. But he offers no answers.

With 1994's Exotica, Egyptian-born Atom Egoyan clinched his claim to being Canada's leading director. His new film, The Sweet Hereafter, should solidify his hold on that problematic title. Egoyan's work, in general, is small-scale enough to seem arty and plain enough to be accessible.

The Sweet Hereafter doesn't break out of this vein, but in some ways it seems a step up for Egoyan, more mature and assured than some of his earlier work and sparked by a characteristically brilliant performance by Ian Holm, who approaches (but doesn't quite match) his masterful work in Gavin Millar's 1985 Dreamchild. Even Holm's second best is better than most actors' best.

Holm plays Mitchell Stephens, a personal injury lawyer who dashes up to Sam Dent, a small British Columbia town, after a freak school bus accident wipes out more than a dozen of the community's children. The school board's insurance carrier has provided some recompense, but Mitch smells bigger money. Descending on the grief-stricken parents, he makes a convincing pitch for a class-action suit against some bigger fish -- probably the bus manufacturer. "There are no accidents," he declaims. "Somebody must be held accountable. There is no compensation for the loss of your child, but we must send a message to the fat cats so that no more children die."

It's clear early on that Mitch is a pro: He cannily sizes up and targets each family's weak points. The only major holdout is rugged individualist Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), who doesn't buy Mitch's lines. Billy is so offended by the idea of making money off the tragedy that he actively tries to break up the lawsuit. And Billy has a privileged perspective compared to the rest of the parents: He's the only one who actually witnessed the crash.

Mitch may indeed be in it for the money -- Egoyan and Holm cleverly deny us a sure handle on his motivations -- but there are signs that he may believe his own argument. He appears to genuinely grieve for the town; at the same time, he is avenging the parallel loss of his own daughter, a junkie who only gets in touch to squeeze him for money. "Something terrible has happened that's taking our children away," he says, exasperated, without quite knowing what he means.

Egoyan tells his story out of chronological order, in a jumbled way that defies easy reordering. He intercuts Mitch's activities in the town with the events leading up to the accident and with a later plane trip, where Mitch runs into a successful former schoolmate of his daughter. Throughout, the story is echoed in quotes from Robert Browning's Pied Piper of Hamelin, about that other town that lost all its children.

The parallel suggests a subtext that The Sweet Hereafter never clearly deals with: After all, the people of Hamelin lost their children as a result of their own greed. And, for all Mitch's talk about how we've already lost our kids to the modern world, we see little evidence that the parents of Sam Dent have betrayed or undervalued their offspring. Whatever their problems, most of the parents -- with one very notable exception -- seem to genuinely love and look out for their children.

It is that notable exception that further muddies Egoyan's allegory. This single betrayal -- without giving away details, it's the same traumatic plot hook that has been used in nearly every movie I've seen this year -- leads to Mitch's and the town's downfall. There may be some cosmic justice to the whole town's paying for one parent's sins, but, if that's so, Egoyan fails to make the case.

For all its mystery and its stylistic finesse, there is something vaguely plodding about The Sweet Hereafter. It has a tinge of that mawkish earnestness that plagues Canadian films (David Cronenberg and Guy Madden excepted).

Egoyan's position in Canada has no real parallel in the States. It used to be easy to say that David Cronenberg was the greatest living Canadian filmmaker. That's not quite so clear today -- not because our neighbor to the north has offered up much by way of competition, but because Cronenberg has become mainstream enough to have escaped the ghetto label of "Canadian filmmaker." Egoyan has retained his local prominence because he hasn't been able to break through to a larger audience -- or hasn't been interested in doing so.

It's part of the quandary of English-language Canadian (and Australian) film that most successful artists are quickly lured stateside by Hollywood, with its bigger talent pool, endless technical resources and big paydays. Cronenberg may be Canadian and he may be a filmmaker, but it's hard to regard him as a Canadian filmmaker. (Does anyone think of Norman Jewison or Arthur Hiller, two other green-card filmmakers, in those terms, even when they shoot on their native soil?)

Since Hollywood is so quick to attract and assimilate Canadians, there's not much left for the Canadian industry itself. By far its most interesting director in recent years has been Guy Madden, Winnipeg's Wizard of Weird, whose Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel and Careful are among the most startling and individual works to have emerged from anywhere in this hemisphere in the past decade. In fact, Madden's comic surrealist masterpieces are so startling and individual that they've almost destroyed his career; for the last several years, the Canadian Film Development Corporation seems to have abandoned him.

Canada's film establishment, though, seems to have a thing for Egoyan, and he'll have to do until a better filmmaker comes along.

The Sweet Hereafter.
Directed by Atom Egoyan. With Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus, Gabrielle Rose, Maury Chaykin and Earl Pastko.

Rated R.
110 minutes.

 
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