Contrary to critical consensus, The Sweet Hereafter (1997) isn’t a portrait of a community, as a comparison with Putty Hill (2010) should prove. Rather, the quiet town is the hunting ground for Mitchell Stevens (Iam Holm), a Mephistophelean lawyer with resentment in his heart come to work up a class-action lawsuit (to sue either the city or the bus company—he’s still fishing). The misinterpretation is probably because director Adam Egoya doesn’t handle nuance well, coating the film in a blanket of indistinct subtlety. Properly dissected, one can see the sublime film that could’ve been.
Ian Holm is brilliant as Stevens, channeling the humanizing backstory of his drug-addled daughter (Caerthan Banks) to make a convincing case for vengeance. We don’t blame anyone for retaining him, even though Billy Ansel’s (moral compass Bruce Greenwood) eminently sensible offer to the Burnells reveals the whole case to be an edifice of resentment.
But the dark heart of the film resides in the subdued yet modulated performance of Sarah Polley as Nicole. From her very first scene together with her father, Sam (Tom McCamus), something feels off about their relationship; they seem overly familiar with each other. We brush it off as just a close father-daughter bond—until we see her change into a dress before sliding into her father’s car (and we definitely know what’s going on by the time the candles come out). Unlike in the source novel, the film presents Sam as a loving and caring father, as if incest is but the result of too much affection. In fact, it’s more likely due to the one-two punch of idolizing her (talent, youth, beauty, whatever) to an extreme degree, and then feeling compelled to possess her (it) by, well, possessing her.
For Nicole, the relationship is only partly consensual. She walks into the abandoned building of her own volition, but only after a significant pause. I wager that she needs her father’s approval and affection to an unhealthy degree, and lets him instruct her as to how to obtain them. When after the accident he noticeably loses interest in her, she feels scorned and, with resentment in her heart (the film’s running theme), strikes at what he cares about most: lawsuit money. Her portrayal of a young girl lying through her teeth out of not fear but spite walks the knife edge just right, and it deliciously complicates her reading of the Pied Piper allegory.