The public's adoration for the film came in the form of a worldwide take of $538 million dollars and 13 Oscar nominations. I am among it's fan. Titanic is a lavish production, reminding us of the epics by D.W. Griffith with its sweeping historical structure and the intimate story in its center. Cameron had succeeded and the academy noticed, rewarding the film with 11 Oscars which tied the record with Ben-Hur.
What Titanic represented was that Hollywood productions had returned after the Academy Award nominations had been swamped by independent films the year before. I liked Titanic (it was on my ten best list) but it wasn’t my favorite film of the year. For me, the best film of the year was Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, another story of tragedy and heartache, only this one was quieter and the wounds were far deeper.
The movie takes place in a small snow-blanketed Canadian community that is suffering under the bitter cold of tragedy. Fourteen children were killed when a school bus careened off the road and onto a frozen lake where it broke through the ice. They drowned in what seemed to be an accident, pure and simple. Into this mourning landscape comes Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), a lawyer who is too old to chase ambulances and too fragile a human being to continue trying to be a father. He has lost a child too, a daughter who resides in an ugly tidepool of drugs. When he first see him he is talking to her on the phone, “I don’t know who I’m talking to.”
The idea of a lawyer coming into a town besieged by an accident would sound like a David and Goliath story on the vein of John Grisham, but Egoyan is too smart for that. Holm suggests to the parents that they hire him to go after those responsible but the characters never leave us with the impression that everything will work out if the giant is slain. The tone of the movie always remind us that a tragedy has taken place, that children are gone and are not coming back and that there will be no cheering courtroom victory at the end. In fact, even if there is a victory and a settlement is made, feelings will be hurt, wounds will be opened and grudges will be fused.
As Holm visits the parents we see that they are a fascinating group of people, not broken saints but ordinary people living a nightmare. We also understand that they are flawed, sometimes maddeningly so. He begins with the Risa and Wendell Walker (Alberta Watson and Maury Chaykin) who own the motel and lost their son. Wendell does not have a loving opinion of the other parents, and Risa apparently doesn’t have a loving opinion of Wendell because she’s cheating on him. Her lover is Bill Ansell (Bruce Greenwood) who was following the bus in a pick-up truck and waving to his children moments before the accident. He was the man who serviced the bus and wants Stevens to drop the case and leave town. We meet the Ottos, Hartley and Wanda (Arsinee Khanjian and Earl Pastko) artists who lost their adopted son.
In the center is Ian Holm in his best performance as a man who sees in these parents the grief that he will eventually face with his own daughter. He finds a human connection in Nicole, whose caring, wounded face leads him to tell a touching story of how his daughter nearly died at the age of three.
The Sweet Hereafter is a haunting film, a quiet story of the irreparable damage inflicted by tragedy and grief. Egoyan doesn’t tie up the ending with a hambone conclusion but gives it a life-goes-painfully-on quality that is less despair and more consolation. Watching the film again along with Titanic I find that both films are similar in theme but the approach is different. Cameron’s film sees the life aboard the famous ship so that we can feel and understand those who were lost. Egoyan’s film sees the young life aboard that bus so that we can understand those who were left behind.
The academy has rewarded Nicholson three times for playing variations on the same character. I am more interested in his range as an actor in films like Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, Ironweed, Hoffa, About Schmidt and The Departed. Yet most people like the rascally persona that he first employed in his breakthrough role, riding on the back of Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle in Easy Rider. Nicholson was able to use this breakthrough role in Easy Rider as a launch pad for a brilliant career, but Peter Fonda wasn’t so lucky. While Nicholson explored various roles, Fonda seemed to stray into a series of forgettable action pictures that were all wrong for his quiet demeanor. He seemed stuck in the biker mode and that was all wrong for him.
The best example of what Peter Fonda can do as an actor came in Victor Nunez’s Ulee’s Gold, a film that took advantage of his strong, quiet nature. Nunez is a director who knows how to bring the best out of his actors. That was true of Ed Harris in A Flash of Green and especially of Ashley Judd in the wonderful Ruby in Paradise. He makes films that observe characters and their world and he found the best qualities of Peter Fonda as an actor.
Fonda plays Ulee Jackson, a beekeeper on the Florida panhandle, who is caring for two grandchildren while their father is in prison. Ulee is a quiet man with sad eyes, who works hard and seems to have no patience with those around him. He is a hard man to get to know and an even harder man to like. His family is a mess, son Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in prison for robbery, his daughter-in-law Helen (Christine Dunford) is a drug addict and his older granddaughter Casey (Jessica Biel) is a smart-mouthed teenager who dresses like a slut and thinks only of herself. His only pure relationship is with Penny, his twelve year-old granddaughter who has yet to inherit the family apathy.
Ulee has no interest in correcting any of these problems, they are not his concern. He is an introvert, a Vietnam war veteran and the only member of his unit to come back alive. His wife is gone and he seems to have no close relationships outside his family. “We don’t ask outsiders for help”, he tells Penny.
Then one day Jimmy calls from prison after two years of silence. He needs Ulee to go and pick up Helen who has fallen into drugs and is staying with Eddie and Ferris, the two men who were his accomplices in the robbery. He finds the two men living in a run-down flophouse and, sure enough, they have Helen passed out on drugs in their bedroom. Before leaving with Helen, Eddie informs Ulee that Jimmy has hidden the money from the robbery and that if he doesn’t bring it too them, he and Ferris will go after his granddaughters.
When Ulee brings home the drug-induced Helen, the girls see that their mother is in need of help and break their father’s credo of not asking for outside help by bringing Connie over to help. She lives across the street, is a nurse who has been twice divorced. She knows how to help Helen, which unfortunately involved sedatives and restraints.
What comes of this story is not what we expect. The framework of the story seems to suggest a standard thriller but Nunez is smarter than that. He allows his characters to be led by the strength of their personalities. Peter Fonda understands this and plays Ulee with more depth and hidden dimensions than we thought he was capable of portraying. Ulee has a heart that has been hardened by tragedy and messy family relationships. He is quiet, stubborn and keeps a distance from those around him. Yet, he is an honorable man, a man of the old school who believes in the value of hard work and of keeping his word. He finds something in his bees that is missing from the people around him, an orderly life, a symbiotic relationship that isn’t based on selfish needs. “You take care of them”, he tells Penny “and they’ll take care of you”.
I wish the academy had dug a little deeper and given some recognition to my choice, Pam Grier who made a phenomenal comeback in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown based on the book "Rum Punch" by Elmore Leonard. Grier had made her name two decades earlier in blaxploitation film of the 70s in films like Coffy and Foxy Brown, the kinds of films that Tarantino grew up watching. He liked her so much that he changed the name of the character from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown and changed the character from a white California girl to a middle-aged African-American woman.
As Jackie, Grier gives one of those “we never knew you had it in you” performances, playing a flight attendant who can see 50 just over the horizon. Early in the film, she is picked up by Federal agents and we learn that she once had a nice career but after muling drugs for her pilot husband she made a deal and stayed out of jail. But it kept her from getting work with a reputable company and now she works for Cabo Airlines, a third-rate service with flights from Los Angelas to Mexico.
The scenes between Max and Jackie are some of the most mature and telling of any couple I've ever seen. They don't have a romance in the conventional sense, but it is a meeting of life experience and of intelligence and maturity. Study the scene in which he sits at her kitchen table and they just talk about themselves and you witness the way people really talk.
That scene slowly sets in motion what will happen for the rest of the film. Jackie realizes that she is in Ordell's cross-hairs and she is on the radar of two ATF agents who are setting her up to recieve his "retirement fund". Jackie sets up an elaborate scheme to steal the money from Ordell while making off with the money herself. It's a tricky set-up and if it weren't for some clever writing and smart characters we wouldn't believe a word of it. We sense what Jackie already knows, that the people who are plotting against her are desperate and murderous but aren't very bright. Of the ATF, she sees two man who love their jobs and have a mindset that stays within those borders.
But robbing the ATF and a dangerous criminal at the same time sounds impossible, even laughable. Grier has a moment before her plan goes into motion where she talks to Max and says
There's a weariness in Grier's eyes as she embodies this woman who's whole life is a mess. She knows that what she faces in retirement is worse than what she faces with Ordell. We realize what is at stake early in the film as she lays out her situation to Max: "I've flown seven million miles. And I've been waiting on people almost 20 years. The best job I could get after my bust was Cabo Air, which is the worst job you can get in this industry. I make about sixteen thousand, with retirement benefits that ain't worth a damn. And now with this arrest hanging over my head, I'm scared. If I lose my job I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with. I'll be stuck with whatever I can get. And that shit is scarier than Ordell."
To watch Pam Grier in this performance is not just to watch a piece of the plot but a three-dimentional character who lives with a sad history and risks her life to establish herself a retirement that is more than just time and heartache. I wish the academy voters had seen it that way and rewarded her work, I wish they could have appreciated all that she brought to the role, looked at their ballots and realized that this performance is as good as it gets.
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