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New Line Home Cinema presents
The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

"As you see her...two years later, I wonder if you realize something. I wonder if you understand that all of us, Dolores, me, the children who survived, the children who didn't, that we're all citizens of a different town now."
- Nicole (Sarah Polley)

Review By: Justin Stephen   
Published: June 20, 2000

Stars: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley
Other Stars: Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus, Gabrielle Rose, Alberta Watson
Director: Atom Egoyan

Manufacturer: Laser Pacific
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and some language
Run Time: 01h:52m:00s
Release Date: May 26, 1998
UPC: 794043465420
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The Sweet Hereafter is almost ubiquitously considered one of the best films of 1997. From Canadian writer/director Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Adustor) comes this screen adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Russell Banks. The recipient of two 1998 Academy Award nominations (director, adapted screenplay) and numerous Genie and critics circle awards, it is a tale about how a small, rural community reacts to a great tragedy and seductive outside influences. The film opens inside a car wash. From the back seat of the luxury car we see the back of a man's head as he waits for his car to pass through the wash. His cellular phone rings, and it is his daughter. Oddly, he doesn't sound happy to hear from her. His daughter is strung out on drugs and calling from a city payphone, most likely to beg for money but he cuts her off before she can ask.The call ends and the man notices his car has stopped moving. He honks his horn impatiently to no avail. He must leave his car in the middle of the wash, getting soaked in the process, to find some attendants to get his car out. He finds no attendants but instead finds a window looking out into a garage parking lot. In the parking lot, like a large yellow gravestone, stands the wrecked hull of a school bus. He gazes.

The man is Mitchell Stephens (Holm) and he is a lawyer, a high-class ambulance chaser who has journeyed to this small town as a shark journeys to blood in the water. This small town, whose name we never really learn, has played witness to a horrible accident involving this bus and has seen almost all of its children perish. Now the town has a huge hole where its children once were. Mitchell Stephens is here to fill that hole with vengeance. He swoops in, gets three sets of parents to sign up as part of a class-action suit against whomever need pay for their loss.

Who the ultimate defendant will be is not immediately clear. Perhaps the manufacturer of the bus is to blame. Perhaps a bolt was loose or defective. Perhaps the manufacturer of the guardrail that the bus smashed through on its plummet to the lake whose ice could not hold its weight is to blame. Eventually a target is chosen, and that's all that matters. He tells the mother of one of the lost children that, despite all appearances, there is no such thing as an accident. Someone is always to blame. This someone will be punished, and he will give voice to their anguish and loss. Not everyone in town is convinced at the wisdom of his actions, however. Billy (Greenwood), the local mechanic, had just recently lost his wife and now has lost both of his children as well. He knows grief, and he knows that this was really just an accident. His attempts to dissuade both Mitchell and the other parents fall on deaf ears.

Ultimately, his case against this phantom foe will depend on the cooperation of a teenaged girl, Nicole (Polley), who was one of the few to survive the accident. She, perhaps, had a promising music career ahead of her. Now she sits in a wheelchair in front of a new computer that Mitchell has given to her, through her parents, in an effort to grease the wheels. She has developed wisdom beyond her years, and not only as a result of the bus accident.

If I have painted a picture of a black and white story, I apologize. The Sweet Hereafter is anything but. Mitchell is not an evil man. He is a man in real anguish over his own personal demons and the loss of his own child (to drug abuse, not an accident). Many of the things that he says to these parents as he woos them into his case may sound like the mutterings of a snake oil salesman, but we get the distinct feeling that he believes them himself. The town, on the other hand, is hardly something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It has its share of sin, as any real small town does. It has verbally abusive husbands, adultery, and even incest.

The Sweet Hereafter is beautifully presented by Egoyan. He has made some significant changes in his adaptation from the novel. The film is not presented to us in a chronological sense. It jumps around, almost as a stream on consciousness. Yet we, as the viewers, are not left behind confused, but eased along. Early in the film, Nicole is babysitting Billy's children, all blissfully unaware of what is in store for them. She reads to them from Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamlin. As the rest of the film unfolds, we often hear verses from this poem in Nicole's voice. This construct works wonderfully. Egoyan also has a real flair for ambience. His sweeping outdoor photography of the winter-bound British Columbia landscape is simply beautiful. Mychael Danna's (Girl, Interrupted, The Ice Storm) somber and beautiful original score echoes throughout.

Quiet possibly the biggest gem is the level of performance offered from this low-budget cast. Polley (Go, eXistenZ) is thoughtful and moving in her role as Nicole and even lends her vocal stylings to several of the songs in the film. Holm (The Fifth Element, Big Night), the dynamic center of the film, is simply tremendous. Truth be told, the cast as a whole does terrific work. I saw nary an ersatz moment in The Sweet Hereafter from start to finish.

The Sweet Hereafter is a powerful film about loss and one unfortunate way in which we are tempted to cope with it. It is about a close-knit community caught at a vulnerable moment and changed forever.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Another terrific New Line "Platinum Series" release, The Sweet Hereafter features an almost flawless anamorphic transfer. The original film, having been shot in relatively bleak indoor environs and in the stark Canadian winter landscape, has little to offer in the way of warm, vibrant color. This mood is captured wonderfully in this transfer, with realistic skin tones and wonderful blacks, whites, and shades of gray in the outdoor photography. There are a couple of very brief, subtle instances of artifacting in the transfer but you'll have to look hard to notice them and they do not detract from the image.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Like the image transfer, the audio is virtually flawless. While hardly a film with a lot of action, The Sweet Hereafter makes very effective use of the surrounds, both to add atmosphere during the outdoor shots and the airplane sequence, and also to help carry Danna's score to the viewer.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
Isolated Music Score with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Atom Egoyan and Russell Banks
Packaging: Snapper
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Before and After: The Sweet Hereafter (35 min. panel discussion)
  2. The Charlie Rose Show interview with Atom Egoyan (25 min.)
  3. The Pied Piper of Hamlin, by Robert Browning (with illustrations)
  4. Video Q&A with the cast members
Extras Review: If you desire to really delve into the creative minds behind The Sweet Hereafter, this disc provides you with ample opportunity to do so. The commentary track with Egoyan and author Russell Banks offers some interesting insight into the mechanics of the film itself, but additionally offers a chance to see how both view the subject matter. Also featured is a very good interview with Egoyan from The Charlie Rose Show. "Before and After" is 35 minutes of excerpts from a panel discussion on the film, featuring Banks, Egoyan, and an introduction from Canadian author Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient). Danna's original score really is exceptional, and we are given isolated score access. Both the U.S. and Canadian original theatrical trailers are offered, and the differences between the two are significant (although I couldn't begin to tell you why). Worked into the cast and crew bios/filmographies are video Q&A segments with several of the cast members. Lastly, a very unique treat in the form of a menu driven look at Browning's illustrated poem The Pied Piper of Hamlin is here. This poem plays a very important role in the film and this is a classy addition to a very solid batch of extras.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Outside of, perhaps, its snapper packaging, The Sweet Hereafter is about as close as you can come to a perfect DVD release. A truly remarkable film re-crafted into an exquisite disc, this is one that fits nicely into the collection of even the most discerning collector.


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