It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
A cold, dark hillside looms above the Bide-a-Wile Motel, pressing down on it, crushing out the life with the gray weight of winter. It is one of the strongest images in Atom Egoyan's “The Sweet Hereafter,” which takes place in a small Canadian town, locked in by snow and buried in grief after 14 children are killed in a school bus accident.
To this town comes a quiet man, a lawyer who wants to represent the residents in a class action suit. Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) lacks the energy to be an ambulance chaser; he is only going through the motions of his occupation. In a way he's lost a child, too; the first time we see him, he's on the phone with his drug-addicted daughter. “I don't know who I'm talking to right now,” he tells her.
There will be no victory at the end, we sense. This is not one of those Grisham films in which the lawyers battle injustice and the creaky system somehow works. The parents who have lost their children can never get them back; the school bus driver must live forever with what happened; lawsuits will open old wounds and betray old secrets. If the lawyer wins, he gets to keep a third of the settlement; one look in his eyes reveals how little he thinks about money.
Egoyan's film, based on the novel by Russell Banks, is not about the tragedy of dying, but about the grief of surviving. In the film the Browning poem about the Pied Piper is read, and we remember that the saddest figure in that poem was the lame boy who could not join the others in following the piper. In “The Sweet Hereafter,” an important character is a teenage girl who loses the use of her legs in the accident; she survives, but seems unwilling to accept the life left for her.