Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything

U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Stephen Hawking in the White House before presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 12, 2009 

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING       B-                 
Great Britain  (123 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  James Marsh 

Biographical profiles (biopics) do not typically make for great cinema, even when well regarded by critics, as instead they tend to be showpieces for great acting performances, through some films can transcend the genre, where the performances anchor more complicated works like Scorsese’s RAGING BULL (1980), Michael Apted’s COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER (1980), Jim Sheridan’s MY LEFT FOOT (1989), Bennett Miller’s CAPOTE (2005), or James Mangold’s WALK THE LINE (2005).  This does not fall into that distinguished company, largely because the source material is Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the 2007 memoir by Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane, so the portrait isn’t so much about physics or the celebrated scientist, but instead describes what it was like to care for someone attempting to cope with such a grave disability.  However, due to the larger than life persona of Hawking, one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century, where his lifelong quest, much like Einstein before him, has been to explain the meaning of the universe, his stature overshadows and literally dwarfs what this picture has to offer.  As an incomplete picture of Hawking himself, concentrating more on the long suffering wife, it’s all about the performances, with Eddie Redmayne, from Hick (2011), My Week with Marilyn (2011), and LES MISÉRABLES (2012) as Hawking, and Felicity Jones from Like Crazy (2011), as his wife Jane.  It’s the first major film where the young actors have been allowed starring roles, both literally carrying the picture with Oscar worthy performances.  Like Daniel Day-Lewis portraying an artist with cerebral palsy, learning to write and paint with his only controllable limb, his left foot, Redmayne is near miraculous in his stunning display of physicality, even as he spends half the film in a wheelchair, expressing the deteriorating effects of motor neuron disease, otherwise known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, where the average survival rate even today is only three or four years, as most die of respiratory failure.  When Hawking was diagnosed in 1963 at the age of 21, he was given 2 years to live, yet is miraculously still alive today, even posting about the film on social media, though he is almost entirely paralyzed and communicates through an electronic speech-generating device.

Stephen Hawking Tells Us What He Really Thinks Of 'The Theory of Everything'  Laura Rosenfeld from Tech Times, November 19, 2014: 

I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well in The Theory of Everything Movie. He spent time with ALS sufferers so he could be authentic. At times, I thought he was me.

Seeing the film has given me the opportunity to reflect on my life. Although I'm severely disabled, I have been successful in my scientific work. I travel widely and have been to Antarctica and Easter Island, down in a submarine and up on a zero gravity flight. One day I hope to go into space.

I've been privileged to gain some understanding of the way the universe operates through my work. But it would be an empty universe indeed without the people that I love.

Despite the brilliance of a continually disfigured Redmayne in a performance that reportedly made the celebrated scientist cry, though a showcase of the most heartbreaking moments of one’s life might have a tendency to do that, not to be overshadowed, Felicity Jones is a marvel of inner strength and determination herself, where her character knows what she’s getting into when she meets Hawking in 1963 and still chooses to marry him and take care of this man almost single handedly.  The film is as much about her selfless resolve and her devotion to duty in dealing with such a severe disability, where the film is more about their marriage than anything having to do with science.  While the audience sees early signs of brilliance from Hawking, there’s no reason to believe that Jane saw him as anything more than simply a man she fell in love with and married, where in the film she seems more concerned about his religious beliefs than his scientific accomplishments.  Adapted from the second memoir of Jane Hawking by Anthony McCarten, which is an abridged reworking of her original 1999 memoir, Music to Move the Stars:  A Life with Stephen, this is unfortunately the root of the film’s problems, as the perspective is simply too narrow and the focus too ordinary, turning this into a typical Hollywood tearjerker that magnifies the personal struggles at the expense of learning more about Hawking’s place in the scientific community.  When it was released the book was considered scandalous, as Hawking by that time was an avowed celebrity, worshipped throughout the entire world, where his success was considered a triumph over his disability, but until the publication and huge success of A Brief History of Time in 1988, selling more than 5 million copies, translated into 33 different languages, for the previous 25-years, Jane spent most of that time in the back-breaking labor of caring for an invalid husband while raising three children, described in her book as living under the “tyranny” of his disability (she nicknamed him “the puppeteer” and “the emperor”), as the Hawkings were financially strapped and dependent on others, including the MacArthur Foundation, for the exorbitant costs connected to his medical care.  During this time Jane received little support, encouragement, or recognition for the sacrifices she was making.  Her book was viewed in the media with skeptical negativity for bringing these dirty details into light, where her candor was not appreciated, but after 1989, his book and other projects brought in huge sums of money, which finally made Hawking a wealthy man and more than likely played a large role in the collapse of their marriage.   

Among the sources of conflict between them was religion, as Jane was a fervent believer while he was an atheist, his family (barely seen in the movie) was never fond of Jane and were reportedly never nice to her, and while she sacrificed to provide for his every need, he would isolate himself from his family where he could be devoted to physics.  The mounting pressures on Jane’s shoulders are the real focus of the film, where it was her mother’s advice to find an outlet of her own, suggesting she sing in the church choir, which brings her a certain amount of solace, where she meets Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) as the choirmaster, who recently lost his wife to illness and develops a close relationship with Jane and the rest of the Hawking family in the 1980’s, helping provide a certain stability to an otherwise out of control situation.  Yet as Jane keeps having children, rumors persist, even within Jane’s own family, about who is the actual father, where it’s hard to believe it could be Stephen, yet surprisingly this function remains “automatic,” as he describes it, which is a bit amazing considering the extreme degree of his physical paralysis.  For decades, Hawking ignored his physical deterioration, exerting all his focus into his intellectual pursuits, where one of the psychological impacts of the disease is a detached overcompensation of the intellectual at the expense of that part of the brain that processes emotional development.  Marsh is a visually fluid director, where perhaps the most attractive cinematic techniques on display are the highly colorful video flashback sequences, which are like happy memories as seen through home movies.  By 1990, however, Stephen decides to leave Jane and live in America with his nurse, Elaine Mason (Mazine Peake), who was married at the time, but they later married, all but discontinuing contact with Jane.  Soon afterwards, the house and garden the family had shared in Cambridge were torn down, where according to Jane, “I felt it had all been taken away from me…I was absolutely committed to the marriage and would never have ended it.  When we first knew each other he was very funny and very engaging, and I had great faith.  I was so positive about Stephen fulfilling his genius.”  Ironically, left out of the film was Stephen’s eventual separation and divorce from Elaine as well in 2006, following which Hawking resumed closer relationships with Jane, his children, and grandchildren.  The film, based upon the revised memoir written in 2007, actually reflects their happier period together. 

While Hawking, through his study of black holes, is the first to bring together ideas of quantum mechanics and gravitation in an enlightening and consistently provocative manner, something that will be a matter of discussion for years to come, his disease-related physical deterioration continues to progress, and by 2005 he began to control his communication device with movements of his cheek muscles, with a rate of about one word per minute, and by 2009 he could no longer drive his electronic wheelchair, where the fear is he will fall into complete paralysis, or locked-in syndrome.  He has increased breathing difficulties, sometimes requiring a ventilator, and has been hospitalized several times.  For 90% of ALS patients, every second of every minute can be a living hell, where many die of respiratory failure or commit suicide by refusing to have a tracheotomy.  The film shows how family members can be tricked and/or persuaded to make the decision for the patient not to have a tracheotomy, often at the advice of medical professionals, though this treads on dangerous moral and ethical grounds, and may even be considered a crime.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


John du Pont (left) and Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz at the Foxcatcher National Training Center in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania

John du Pont is taken from a van on his way to the Newtown Square, Pennsylvania police station after his arrest in 1996

Wrestlers Dave Schultz (left) and his brother Mark compare Olympic Gold medals won at the 1984 Olympics

FOXCATCHER          B-           
USA  (134 mi)  2014  d:  Bennett Miller           Official Facebook

This is a very downbeat and dreary film that seems to be as much about depression as anything else, but also a sense of disillusionment in the American Dream, where there’s something inherently wrong with the core values, reflected after the euphoria of America’s dominance of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, a jingoistic television bonanza, by the way, for an event that was boycotted by the Russians (1984 Summer Olympics boycott) along with 14 other Eastern Bloc nations, significantly lessening the quality of the competition.  The 80’s was also an era of massive steel plant shutdowns, shifting their operations overseas, leaving a devastating hole for American workers to overcome, and Reaganomics, implementing a laissez-faire free market “trickle down” system that eliminated corporate regulations for the wealthy, where the rich got richer and the poor got significantly poorer, as the President froze minimum wage rates, slashed federal assistance to local governments by 60%, eliminating antipoverty Block Grant programs, while cutting the budgets for public housing in half, creating a surge of homelessness that continues to this day.  While it was an era of supposed economic optimism where millionaires received special tax breaks, it was largely a hoax, not the economic miracle advertised, as it was paid for by mounting credit, where the national debt rose from $900 billion to $2.8 trillion during Reagan’s tenure.  This created the perception of a divided nation, the wealthy, an upper middle class, and everybody else, where poor and minority citizens viewed Reagan as indifferent to their daily struggles.  This movie does accurately reflect not only an economic divide, but also the last vestiges of the Cold War mentality, filled with the notion that American know-how and wealthy entrepreneurs were somehow responsible for reviving the sagging American spirit and bringing the nation back to its “rightful” position of international prominence.  Much like the Eastern European nations had full government support backing their athletes, America needed similar avenues of financial support for those non-professional athletes that dedicated their lives to training for Olympic competition.  Filling the void was corporate America, who offered their sponsorship, providing uniforms, equipment, live-in training facilities, and various services and products that account for 40% of Olympic revenues.  Even today, when corporate sponsorship falls through, many U.S. Olympic athletes are left with only one back-up plan—joining the Army.   

While this film makes the claim that it is based on a true story, this is only partially true, as the way the story is told is completely misleading, only raising more questions, as one of the final sequences condenses 7-years of time in a single shot, giving the audience the impression one event led to another, never providing the context for the missing years.  So this is a fictionalized retelling of a true story, written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, given the Hollywood treatment of creative license.  Frye, by the way, wrote the brilliantly inventive SOMETHING WILD (1986) by Jonathan Demme, while Futterman wrote the screenplay for Bennett’s earlier film CAPOTE (2005).  What’s special about the film is not the direction, though it was awarded Best Director at Cannes, but the performances, where two of the three main characters are barely recognizable to the public, Steve Carell with a prosthetic nose as eccentric multi-millionaire John du Pont, heir to the chemical company fortune, and Mark Ruffalo with a beard and receding hairline as Olympic gold medalist wrestler Dave Schultz, older brother to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), both winning gold medals in wrestling at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  The story is seen through the eyes of Mark Schultz, both brothers losing their parents at an early age, moving continuously to various family members, leading hard scrabble, blue collar lives where Dave largely looked after his little brother for the duration of his life.  In an early morning wrestling practice between the two brothers taking place in a dark and dingy gym, the bulked up physique of Mark is familiar, but Ruffalo completely loses himself in this character, where the two barely speak to one another, but violently throw each other around the mat, expressing the sheer brutality of the sport.  While Dave is pursued by corporate sponsors, out of the blue Mark receives a call from John du Pont, who has built a state-of-the-art, world class wrestling facility on the 800-acre grounds of the du Pont family estate overlooking Valley Forge, where the logo is Foxcatcher.  Du Pont’s wealth is everpresent, but he’s interested in sponsoring a team of wrestlers for the upcoming World Championships and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea.  While calling himself a patriot inspired to rebuild America’s image around the world, the personal interest expressed in Mark takes on that of a paternal relationship, where du Pont revels in being the father figure to such an esteemed athlete, an interest paralleled with that of his distant mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who raises world class horses. 

Despite moving away from his brother to live on the grounds, Mark succeeds brilliantly, going on to win the World Championships in 1985, as his brother had done earlier in 1983, the only brother pair to ever achieve such exalted success in the sport.  Both had brilliant collegiate careers as well that the film ignores, dealing instead with du Pont’s interest in one of the Schultz brothers.  After the victory, du Pont introduces Mark to several bad habits, namely alcohol and cocaine, while showcasing him to his peers, often at events honoring John du Pont, where Mark offers additional complimentary praise on his behalf.  As the two spend so much time together, they actually become friends, something neither one of them had as kids, both defined by loneliness, feeling unloved, dwarfed by the more powerful influence of their families, where du Pont apparently could never please his mother, where the only friend he had in childhood was paid to be his friend by his mother, while Mark was always under the influence of his older brother.  Dave is happily married with kids, so did not feel comfortable uprooting his family, especially after the instability of his own childhood.  But without Dave’s influence, Mark goes off his training regimen, becomes psychologically unhinged, forgetting about his passion for the sport, where du Pont quickly turns on him, becoming abusive, contemptuously treating him like an ungrateful child, losing his favored status.  In an unorthodox move, du Pont hires his older brother Dave to come to the camp along with his family and train the Foxcatcher team for the 1988 Olympics.  Mark loses his confidence, initially hiding his bad habits from his brother, and goes into a psychological tailspin so severe that even his brother can’t turn it around, where du Pont’s overcontrolling influence has poisoned the waters.  After a disastrous Olympic performance, Mark leaves the compound to get away from du Pont, leaving Dave behind to continue coaching the team, as once more, Dave was not interested in moving his family.  Du Pont, on the other hand, traded in one Schultz brother for the other.  Nonetheless, in marked contrast with the stability of his brother Dave, who’s a brilliant coach with a loving family, the film spends so much time exploring the instability of Mark’s character that du Pont’s mental meltdown all but blindsides the audience.  While more than 7 years pass after Mark leaves the compound, with Dave still coaching at Foxcatcher throughout, the film makes it seem like the very next moment when du Pont goes after Dave, seemingly unable to break his will as he had his younger brother, shooting him senselessly in front of his family, leaving 20 former Foxcatcher athletes without training or coaching resources six months before the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.  The event arrives with a thud, as the focus of the film showcases Mark’s fragile state of mind throughout, becoming Tatum’s most complex character to date, so the shift away from him is simply odd.  Despite Carell’s grotesque, emotionally peculiar performance as du Pont, a man who knows little about the sport of wrestling, no inner pathology for du Pont is ever developed, instead remaining isolated and emotionally erratic throughout, continually overshadowed by the actual talent and accomplishments of the Schultz brothers.  


In an odd twist of events, du Pont’s will stipulated that 80% of his assets outside the family trust would go to Bulgarian wrestler Valentin Jordanov Dimitrov and his family, who lived at the Foxcatcher compound at the time of the murder and went on to win a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games.  Dimitrov was also the executor of the will.  Along with a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics, Dimitrov was a seven-time world champion, seven-time European champion, and the only wrestler to hold 10 medals (7 gold, 2 silver and 1 bronze) from the World Championships.  When the International Olympic Committee eliminated wrestling as an Olympic event in 2013, one of only two Olympic sports, along with boxing, that still require participants to have amateur status to participate, Dimitrov returned his 1996 Olympic gold medal in protest.  After a public outcry, seven months later wrestling was reinstated back into the Olympics, while baseball/softball and squash were dropped instead.   

Friday, November 28, 2014

Beyond the Lights

BEYOND THE LIGHTS         B+                  
USA  (116 mi)  2014  d:  Gina Prince-Bythewood

Why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain't ever gonna fly
No place big enough for holding all the tears you're gonna cry
Cos your mama's name was lonely and your daddy's name was pain
And they call you little sorrow cos you'll never love again

So why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain't ever gonna fly
You ain't got no one to hold you you ain't got no one to care
If you'd only understand dear nobody wants you anywhere
So why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain't ever gonna fly

—Nina Simone “Blackbird,” 1966, Nina Simone - Blackbird - YouTube (3:51)

While women made up roughly half of the directors at this year’s independent Sundance Film Festival, yet they still struggle when it comes to films receiving a wide release, where of the Hollywood studio releases originally slated for the summer of 2014, 37 are directed by white men, 2 by black men and 1 by a woman, according to a recent analysis by Lucas Shaw at The Wrap.  That one film, JUPITER ASCENDING, co-written and directed by Lana Wachowski along with her brother Andy, was pushed back to 2015, reducing the summer’s total to zero.  Black American director Gina Prince-Bythewood struggled for four years to get this film made, where the first draft was written in 2007, as Sony Pictures originally agreed to produce and distribute the picture, but dropped out when the director insisted upon casting a then unproven talent, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in the starring role.  While she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, specializing in musical theater where song and dance is her forte, but Sony wasn’t convinced she was destined to become a star and were more interested in names like Rihanna or Beyoncé.  As it turns out, the actress received plenty of acclaim in an earlier release, BELLE (2013), and she’s easily the best thing in this picture as a rising pop star singer named Noni.  The fact that we haven’t seen her face plastered on billboards, cosmetics advertisements, or music videos suggests she can offer a fresh perspective about the difficulties young women are subjected to when attempting to break into a sexist, male-dominated music industry, where the N-word and the B-word are routinely thrown around in hip-hop lyrics, a business where women have routinely been objectified as sex objects since the advent of music videos on MTV, with images only growing raunchier and more graphic, like the controversial cover to Nicki Minaj’s new release Anaconda, Nicki Minaj "Anaconda" Unaltered Cover Art, Memes, Music ..., where the racy video, Nicki Minaj - Anaconda - YouTube (4:49), is a parody of the exaggerated hypersexualization required by women.  This cultural demand for sexist artificiality is at the heart of the film, which plays with the contrasting ideas of image and real black aspirations. 
While this female written and directed $7 million dollar black indie film is wrapped in a cliché-driven Hollywood romance that resembles Whitney Houston in THE BODYGUARD (`1992), the film also pays tribute to that troubled artist, one of the great voices of our time who died a tragically premature death, reminding us that the pathway to real success is paved with plenty of inner obstacles along the way.  In an introductory prologue, Noni as a young 10-year old girl (India Jean-Jacques), prodded on by her obsessively driven stage mother (Minnie Driver in one of her best performances in ages), finds a black hairdresser just as she’s about to close, desperate to do something with her daughter’s hair before a talent competition.  At the performance she sings a song well beyond her years, Nina Simone’s ultra serious 1966 anthem to the black consciousness of the times, “Blackbird,” Nina Simone - Blackbird - YouTube (3:51), winning second prize to an obviously inferior Shirley Temple imitator.  Storming out in disgust, her mother orders her to toss out the trophy, barking out “You wanna be a runner-up?  Or you wanna be a winner?”  Cut to an adult version of Noni starring in the background of a music video for white rapper Kid Culprit (rapper Machine Gun Kelly), where she’s dressed in a skimpy bondage outfit waiting for him to make her one of his many sexual conquests.  This, however, is the image of success, appearing on three consecutive #1 hits for the Kid, as she’s soon awarded a Billboard Music Award as a rising star, where her upcoming first album release is all but guaranteed to be a sensation, making her an overnight superstar.  No one cares that she can sing, however, but are bowled over by the heat of the sexually suggestive imagery she sells.  When she returns to the penthouse suite with her bottle of champagne, she hires a moonlighting cop at the door, keeping everybody else out.  When her mother insists on going inside, Noni is about to plunge off the balcony, rescued by the quick thinking of the local policeman Kaz Nicol, Nate Parker, so strong in Denzel Washington’s THE GREAT DEBATERS (2007), who instantly becomes a tabloid hero, rescuing the fair maiden in distress.  Except for the cop, who deals with crisis situations every day, no one else senses the extent of her emotional descent, literally drowning in the image she has created, where she feels suffocated and imprisoned.  For the camera, however, still pushed by her hard-nosed mother, now her manager, she maintains all professional appearances while behind the scenes she is literally driven into dysfunction and despair. 

While the critique of the music business is probably the film’s greatest strength, nonetheless the means by which the message is carried is through the traditional vehicle of a boy meets girl Hollywood romance, seemingly preposterous and yet there it is bigger than life, where the scenes between the star and her protector are exquisitely understated, quiet, disarmingly honest and intense, feeling authentic and natural, while surrounded by a swarming throng of tabloid photographers that follow them both wherever they go.  Kaz has his own pressures, as his father is none other than Danny Glover, a highly decorated retired cop, where he’s following in his father’s footsteps, trying to make the most of the opportunities he’s been given, perhaps heading into politics where he thinks he could make a difference.  The trust factor and conservative stability of politics however do not go hand in hand with tabloid fanaticism and the cultural obsession with celebrity worship, where both appear headed in different directions, yet there’s a natural chemistry between them, where perhaps what they need the most is the kind of honesty they have with each other. The pressures of fame, ambition, and career have them both on edge, where each is told by friends and handlers that the other is bad for business, that their career would be derailed, so they simply get away for awhile, heading for an isolated beach in Mexico where the media circus around them can stop spinning for a moment.  In one of the most beautifully written scenes of the film, shot with such utter simplicity, Noni stands in front of a bathroom mirror and removes her infamous hair extensions, a chic fashion style synonymous with her reputation and fame.  While we don’t realize it at the time, it’s the first step of removing herself from the shackles of the past, as she still has to find that familiarity of living in her own skin, which is expressed beautifully at a small karaoke bar when she returns to Nina Simone, a hauntingly powerful moment that transcends any of the over-produced crap that sells millions, yet it’s an intimate, quietly anonymous moment that couldn’t be more captivating.  It’s a hint of what’s to come, as it’s not like the music industry allows the players free reign to do what they want when they’re just breaking into the business, as that’s reserved for established stars.  However, it’s a small step in the right direction, an act of healing and empowerment, where despite being overwhelmed by the frightening prospects of what lies ahead, she is for the first time in her life truly happy.  Doing her own singing, Mbatha-Raw literally inhabits the role with a stunning effectiveness, a breakthrough moment in her career, where her own personal transformation seems to be taking place right before our eyes.  

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Sweet Hereafter

THE SWEET HEREAFTER                A                    
Canada  (110 mi)  1997  ‘Scope  d:  Atom Egoyan 

When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountainside shut fast…
—Verse 13, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Robert Browning (1888), Robert Browning: the Pied Piper of Hamelin: the complete text

Egoyan’s ferociously sorrowful adaptation from the Russell Bank’s novel, a stunningly beautiful, mesmerizing film that leaves one in a trance, always understating the power of the subjects, using skillful interwoven time periods, parceling out little bits and pieces of information, much of it told in flashback, moving fluidly back and forth across month’s of screen time, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Paul Sarossy, with a medieval and renaissance musical score by Mychael Danna, all in a rhythmic, musical dialogue of pure cinematic poetry.  One of the most powerful, yet at the same time, so quietly affecting and profoundly moving films, with so much empty space to fill, both in the visual outer and emotional inner worlds, and with such haunting music which becomes the lead character in the film, leading us like moths to a flame through this amazing emotional landscape.  Egoyan had just became a father when this film was made, changing the setting of the book from upstate New York to British Columbia, also reducing a multiple first person narrative of five characters in the book to two main characters, while adding references to The Pied Piper of Hamelin that are not in the book, which so impressed author Russell Banks that he has a small role in the film as the town doctor, freely admitting that he felt Egoyan’s adaptation of Browning’s poem is an improvement over the demolition derby imagery used in the book, which was based upon a real event, a 1989 Bus crash in Alton, Texas where twenty-one children drowned, forty-nine others were injured and it led to a massive $150 million dollar litigation, out of which the participating lawyers earned roughly $50 million dollars in fees.  The film won the 2nd place Jury Prize at Cannes, also the FIPRESCI prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, where a once every decade, 2004 Toronto Film Festival polling of festival programmers, film critics, industry professionals and Canadian film scholars ranked the film fourth in the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time. 
The film is set in a small Canadian mountain town in the winter calm which followed the deaths of fourteen children who died in a school bus crash.  Ian Holm plays Mitchell Stevens, the city lawyer who tries to represent the grieving parents, all living in separate, isolated homes with long, winding driveways in a class-action lawsuit against the bus company with the ultimate promise of money, to give direction to their anger and “the sheer magnitude of your suffering,” yet leaving them in a more divided state of anger and disarray.  At the same time he seeks to find expression for his own loss and anger, “you suffer enough rage and helplessness and your love turns to something else, it turns to steaming piss,” while losing his daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks, Russell Banks’ daughter) to a world of drug addiction, clinics, flop-houses, more drugs, more money for drugs, all premised on her lie that she was going to try for something better.  But she only grows more faraway and distant, lost to the streets, where eventually she contracts HIV and he is consumed with losing her, which is contrasted against the innocence of Zoe as a beautiful child, with an extraordinary memory of horror when she was bit by baby black widow spiders and he had to be prepared “to go all the way,” to surgically cut her throat, per a doctor’s phone instructions, to save her life, as otherwise the swelling would cause her to stop breathing before she could get to the hospital.  This is contrasted against yet another ominous story of the Pied Piper, a bedtime story lulling the children to a sweet rest, after ridding a town of rats, the Pied Piper took the children away because he was mad they refused to honor their debt to him, so he wanted the town punished.  Promising a place “where everything was strange and new,” the Pied Piper lured the children out of the town, all skipping and dancing after his wonderful music to an open portal in the mountainside before it closed up.  Yet one was left behind, “one was lame and could not dance the whole of the way.”  The prominent use of a fairy tale motif effectively alters the point of view to that of the children, giving meaning to the bus crash from a child’s perspective—the unheard voices.   

As the lawyer, tormented by the fate of his own daughter, Stevens meets the families, which the audience meets as well, becoming familiar, trying to convince them “There is no such thing as an accident…It’s up to me to ensure moral responsibility in society,” while the camera always sees on the walls pictures of lost children, photographs, memories, coinciding with the opening shot of a mother, her bare breast exposed, lying asleep in bed with her husband and small child, an image of family beauty, safe and secure.  Another husband and wife see their adopted son off on the school bus, seemingly small against the white sky and the snowy mountains, an act of simplicity, a parental good-bye, an instinctual concern, an unknowing, final farewell before the bus is lost in a beautiful mountainside covered in snow.  Sarah Polley (18 at the time) plays Nicole, the lone survivor of the crash, a 15-year old left paralyzed from the waist down, clearly identifying with the cripple who was left behind, feeling guilty that she survived when others perished, seen reading the poem as she babysits for the two children of Billy Ansel (Bruce Greenwood), children who later die in the accident, so eloquently interspersed throughout, providing a magnificent performance, singing Tragically Hip’s theme song “Courage,” Sarah Polley - Courage (The Sweet Hereafter) - YouTube (4:20).  She is, herself, a victim of her own father’s incest, and burns with rage at him now that she is crippled and in a wheelchair, no longer able to realize her dream.  “I’m a wheelchair girl now and it’s hard to pretend I’m a beautiful rock star.  Remember, Daddy, that beautiful stage that you were going to build for me?  You were going to light it with candles.”  As the accident is shown, the children’s screams are consumed in a hushed silence, to a deeper agony within our memory, to a place where only silence answers, to a sweet peace, where train whistles can be heard in the background offering silent passage to “the sweet hereafter,” a place where people can find peace with their fate.    

It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can't forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new.

But this peace is disrupted and disturbed by the town’s reaction to the lawyer, by an innocent girl’s misplaced blame, by a silent rage and a promise that money can somehow make things right, where the lives of the townspeople begin to disintegrate, severing the ties and values that created this community.  Billy pleads with Nicole’s parents to drop the lawsuit, “I’ll even give you the money I got for my kids.  That’s the way we used to do it, remember?  Help each other, because this was a community.”  Developing themes of guilt, separation, anger, unnamable sin, and excruciating loss, the human response to such a nightmarish tragedy is to seek relief, compensation, and perhaps even closure for their loss.  But that remains elusive and unattainable, as each individual weaves their own way through the various stages of loss, where Dolores (Gabrielle Rose) the bus driver and the parents of the lost children all end up someplace different, if only mentally, because life as they knew it had changed forever.  At the sight of the relocated bus driver, we hear the words of Nicole in a voiceover, “As you see her, two years later, I wonder if you realize something, I wonder if you understand that all of us, Doloros, me, the children who survived, the children who didn’t, that we’re all citizens of a different town now.  A place with its own special rules, special laws, a town of people living in the sweet hereafter.”  Holm and Polley give career best performances on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, where he is an estranged parent and a hollow soul, where anger and frustration cuts through his icy exterior, while she is a lost child and violated innocent, yet remains the fiercely intelligent moral center throughout.  In the world of quiet yet lacerating chamber dramas, this is a towering work, perhaps the film that all other works of heart-wrenching trauma and despair must compare themselves to, shot in the silence and vast wintry landscape of endless snow, an extraordinary film about grief, about broken promises, and the lonely, personal search within ourselves to find redemption.