Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Russell Banks

Sam Dent is not an actual city in New York. Nor is it an actual city anywhere else in the world. School bus accidents taking the lives of dozens of children, quite real. One such crash occurred on September 21, 1989 in Alton, Texas, when a Coca-Cola truck struck a school bus, sending it into a gravel pit. Of the 70 children aboard, 21 perished. Lawyers descended onto the area like cicadas, shamelessly exhorting families to dig into the deep pockets of the soda behemoth. Coke ended up paying out $140 million, almost a third of which went to the lawyers. Subsequent reports revealed Alton as a town torn apart by not just the loss of so many of its children, but of the bitterness and resentment that metastasized among the parents, not all of whom sought solace in the the courts.

The tragedy in Texas inspired New York-based writer Russell Banks, best known at that time and perhaps this time for 1985's Continental Drift, a bold examination of existentialist dread gone (literally) South. There's nothing truly bold about The Sweet Hereafter, and not much dread either, since the worst--you know, the actual worst--has already happened in Sam Dent, a humble place where everyone knows everyone (whether they want to or not) and no one has very much money. Then comes the winter morning when the school bus driven by Delores Driscoll (a kindly woman with an invalid husband and two estranged adult sons) swerves into and through a barricade, tumbles down a ravine and stops on an ice-covered sandpit. Fourteen children are killed.

The story of the crash, and what unfolds, is told by four people: Driscoll; Billy Ansel, a widower/war vet who lost both of his children in the accident; lawyer Mitchell Stephens; and Nichole Burnell, a 14-year-old girl of great promise who will be wheelchair-bound for life. Mitchell Stephens is one of a mischief of attorneys that have scurried into Sam Dent, seduced by the scent of suffering (cotton, if you were wondering). Fourteen young lives have been lost, a perversion of nature that someone must answer for.

Stephens decides early on that the "someone" should not be the driver of the doomed bus. Delores is a good egg. Also, what would the townspeople sue her for? She's a struggling Sam Denter just like all of them. The miserly local government, the obtuse school district, the lackadaisical rescue squad, faceless groups of people who cut corners with unsettling adroitness…those pricks are ripe.

The first parents Stephens approaches agree to participate in a lawsuit, eager for anything that will blot out the pain that threatens to blot out their lives. While the other lawyers, brazen and transparent, turn off much of the populace, Mitchell Stephens just seems different. He doesn't believe in "accidents," and he knows what it's like to lose a child.

Billy Ansel is different, himself. On the morning of the non-accident, he was, as per custom, driving behind the bus on his way to work. His testimony would be huge in exonerating Delores Driscoll, so naturally Mitchell Stephens wants him on board. Billy is disheartened that so many of his friends have given in to avarice, and even visits the Burnells, trying to convince them of what a bad idea a lawsuit is. He can't bear to see how litigious lust has changed his neighbors, making them reclusive and "hateful."

As every tale of loss calls for the villain, so it requires the hero. Not Mitchell Stephens (Atticus Finch was not an actual attorney, guys) but, instead, Nichole Burnell. At her deposition, she claims that her front seat spot on the bus provided a clear view of the vehicle's speedometer. She is ready to testify that Delores Driscoll was speeding to the tune of 72 MPH at the time of the crash. This is a direct contradiction of the 50-55 Delores herself told police (not to mention the 60-65 she confided to Stephens).

Then there's some crap with a demolition derby. I may have started daydreaming about Thai food.

Russell Banks is a more enticing writer than The Sweet Hereafter suggests. Perhaps using third person throughout instead of slicing up the first person pie would have made for a more hard-hitting story? The characters wind up speaking as writers write, thinking as writers think, reflective and perceptive, careful to describe their surroundings. Mediocrity bound, in other words.

(When Mitchell Stephens began bemoaning the "death" of America's children, I just hoped that my vomit would prove peculiar. Odd color, curious texture, something.)

My attention drifted too often for me to consider The Sweet Hereafter a great read. Which honestly surprised me. I was ready to be moved, via either push or pull. Just so long as I went somewhere.

Director-Atom Egoyan
Writer-Atom Egoyan

A languid sort of hell. A place to stretch and shrink. Sam Dent, British Columbia becomes such a place.

A young couple asleep, a child between them. A distinguished older gentleman at the car wash. A featureless young blonde onstage with her band, perpetuating innocuous folksiness.

Look out, we might have art.

Mitchell Stephens has taken his legal talents to Sam Dent, a blink of a town, hoping to get justice for the parents of the fifteen children involved in a deadly school bus crash. He speaks with the driver, Delores Driscoll, and several of the distraught parents.

We see the blonde girl babysitting two of the children. She reads "The Pied Piper of Hamlin" to them. She is kind and shy and pretty. Stephens speaks to her as well, after the accident. She's in a wheelchair. She will always be in a wheelchair. She's Nicole Burnell, the sole survivor of the crash. The luckiest person in all of Sam Dent.

Billy Ansel might be the unluckiest. First his wife dies of cancer, then his twins perish in a school bus. He worries about his neighbors. They may have fancied themselves resolute, resilient folks, but what they face is an ordeal unlike any other that has come before or will arrive after.

Then Nicole Burnell lies her ass off and saves the town.

The single triumph of director/writer Atom Egoyan was to rearrange the novel's narrative structure, which was pretty straightforward. The film is comprised of scenes placed out of sequence, which can make for an effectively, exhilaratingly challenging viewing experience when done nothing less than well. The accident itself is held until the second half, and borders on the voyeuristic. It's also the only scene in The Sweet Hereafter that reaches the heights of "unforgettable" cinema.

But to hear others tell it--even now but especially then--The Sweet Hereafter is one of the decade's best films, a stirring meditation on loss, pain and the myths and truths of survival. It won the Grand Prize at Cannes. It took home no Oscar gold, but had a chance in the Director and Adapted Screenplay categories. Reviews, pro and amateur alike, lavished praise on Ian Holm as Mitchell Stephens. Sarah Polley's undercooked portrayal of Nicole Burnell also apparently stole some hearts. (Bruce Greenwood had the most impressive performance, to my mind, and even then he's merely functional as a man determined to be low-key courageous in his disintegration.)

Clean, artful camerawork makes a community in mourning into a pretty purgatory, but unless the citizenry are picking up the pieces bare-handed, I'm not intrigued.

Think about the best films of the decade. Who in hell puts The Sweet Hereafter up on the platform with Goodfellas? What single moment measures up to anything in Schindler's List? The first two Toy Story films made me cry. I didn't even manage a sniffle for Egoyan's alleged masterpiece. If I want breathtaking visuals, I'll watch Trainspotting. If I want a movie with lots of snow, there's always Fargo. (Or Goldeneye.)

This film is...serviceable.

What am I missing?

More than twice I found myself grumbling at Russell Banks's failure to give his characters personality. The movie does that by default, since every actor and actress has pride in their craft. Orbiting the narrative around Mitchell Stephens was wise, even if I rolled my eyes when he realizes the young woman seated next to him on a plane was a childhood friend of his estranged daughter. Gotta shoehorn in that dramatic spider bite story! At least it spared us seeing any of Billy Ansel's regrettable plunges down Ramble Falls up on the screen.

Oh yes, Stephens has a vitriolic relationship with his only child. She calls him infrequently, and these calls always begin bad and end worse…hear that? The thunder booms, the ground gives way, and one man's raison d'etre is revealed.

Much more inspired was Egoyan's inclusion of the "Pied Piper of Hamlin" (which also explains if not excuses the Renaissance-style score). We see Nicole read the fable to the Ansel children, and hear it throughout, in voice-over. The metaphor is flawed--Delores Driscoll is the Piper, but she didn't drive off the road intentionally. Also, what payment had she been denied?

The rest of it works, though. Nicole represents the real-life version of the lame boy in the fable who was sad that he could not follow his friends to the "joyous land." She is sad, then angry. Before the accident, she seemed to lead a charmed life. She realizes she will never again be seen as a whole person by any of the townspeople. She will be a symbol: of luck, of loss, of grace, of fate. Nicole's revenge is to make liars of the bus driver and the compassionate attorney, thereby denying several families--including her own--monetary compensation. It seems cruel, but in truth, her fib will keep the town from tearing itself apart.

In the book, Nichole was far less concerned with saving the soul of Sam Dent. Suddenly undesirable to her sicko pops, she has no reason to fear him. No more sleepless nights fantasizing about ideal suicide methods. She can deny him a chance at a better life, just as hers was snatched away.

The film futzed with the incestuous relationship between Nichole and her father for no good reason. She appears receptive to his advances, to the point where a viewer could deduce that she lied at the deposition to spite her father for what he can longer do, rather than what he did. The "love" scene in the barn, with tender kissing atop the hay and shit? I'd rather watch the Yanomamö tribe's revenge in Cannibal Holocaust. Sarah Polley's performance doesn't help; she captures the detachment, but any resentment barely registers.

(Further, the actor playing her father looks like Canadian Tommy Wiseau.)

A story will inevitably suffer when every character tells their part in similar fashion, including detailed descriptions of setting. It feels like empty calories. A movie can just show, and in this particular instance, that is superior to constant references to grey-white days and blue-black nights.

Smart to ditch the demolition derby which ends the book, which wound up as a dumping ground for staid metaphors and a gentle reminder that each individual heals in their own way, at their own speed. In the movie, we get voice-over of Nicole lamenting how the town of Sam Dent has changed.

End of, I remained thoroughly undevastated. I'll go with the book, since it didn't at any time try to make incest sexy.  

What's it all mean? Life-death. Death-life. Boundless joy or measureless anguish. Available to all, exceptional to none.

How cruel religious belief can be. Don't be sad, for death is an illusion, applicable only to life only on Earth. God doesn't call home any soul before their time, and His home is His kingdom, where there is everlasting peace. His will be done, your children be dead.

Lawyers ain't much better. Witness Mitchell telling Nichole to see the forthcoming trial as "people doing their jobs, no good guys and no bad guys." Of course there's good and bad. Not wanting to bear the ethical burden doesn't change that.

Car washes used to freak me inside out, so it shouldn't surprise you to learn I avoided roller coasters until I was in my early thirties.

Stephens never goes to visit the Ansel abode in the film, meaning the director missed out on what would have been a hell of a shot.

Two movies based on Russell Banks novels were released in 1997. Affliction, featured two Oscar-nominated performances, by Nick Nolte and James Coburn (the latter of whom actually took home gold) I read three different reviews each of the book and film, practically begging my brain to believe it was worthy of the "BIYH?" treatment. Maybe I should have tried cookies instead.

Nichole finds The Simpsons "insulting." Yeah well, bitch, you can't walk.  

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