The Sweet Hereafter 1997 ★★★½
An unbearable film featuring the combined grief of a remote, wintery Canadian town, an unresolvable grief that dwells on the fact of the irreversibility of time. We live with death and suffering we experience, with no control over when it happens, and the movie has few if any answers about them.
I cannot relate the movie to you because, while a plot relation is standard here, the narrative is not to be given away at all. The movie is told in a jumble (the narrative, or order of events), going between a lawyer talking to victims, the lawyer discussing his daughter with someone else, and the depiction of the accident that prompts the lawyer to visit the town. Although everyone in the movie knows what happened and how it did, you do not. This is, in an unusual way, a narrative with a mystery to be solved only by you, although the lawyer is kind of a guide trying to make sense of the accident. If you are going to watch this movie, I strongly advise not reading a plot description.
Unlike any mystery or lawyer-investigating-a-tragedy movie, this one knows that no resolution, in the ultimate sense, is possible. Nobody is coming back from the dead, nor can anything be restored to order. You deal with that, the movie says, but you can’t, ever, for the rest of your life.
What I like about this film is not only the clever and moving way the narrative (order of events in sequence) is constructed, but also the obvious contrasts with “Fargo,” a contemporary wintery movie about loss in the barren wilderness, although of course Fargo involves stupid and despicable criminals. Yet the Coen Brothers have worked many times in this kind of dark, wintery world where the atmosphere of the frozen North is a metaphor for the murky zone between life and death. Recently, Charlie Kaufman used that atmosphere and setting in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” also about grief and near-death experiences.
I prefer movies, and art in general, with solutions. Does this one have them? I don’t know, and it doesn’t seem like it. The lawyer in this movie, suffering because his daughter is “lost” to him, because of her drug problem, thinks that he can resolve the past for the people he’s trying to help. He must believe this. He himself is grief-stricken, and if he can’t help himself, he can help others with the same lost-child problems. This is a contender for Ian Holm’s best performance, another reason to watch it.