One of the best films I’ve ever seen was Atom Egoyan’s 1997 adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter. It is so powerful, and so shattering, that I have not seen it since I became a father; I don’t think I could bear it.
The story is set in a small Canadian village, where many of the town’s children have just died in a school bus accident. Ian Holm plays an ambulance-chasing lawyer who comes to town to drum up business. He goes around visiting the grieving parents, trying to convince them that their children died because of someone else’s fault. It becomes clear that it was nobody’s fault, not really; it just happened, because these things happen in life. Holm is offering the parents the comfort of a reason, however false, why their children were taken from them, by suggesting that if guilty others had made different, more careful decisions, their children would be alive today.
It emerges that Holm’s daughter, Zoe, is lost to him. She is a young adult, and she’s left home, and she’s into drugs and chaotic living. He can’t protect her. And it all brings to mind an event from Zoe’s childhood; it’s the scene from the film I’ve embedded above. Little Zoe was bitten by a poisonous spider, and nearly dies. Her father has to confront his ultimate powerlessness to protect his child from death. In this light, you see that his entire subsequent litigious career is a kind of religious vocation: to impose a false sense of control on what is ultimately uncontrollable, thereby defending against the desperate, primal terror every parent feels.
I think of Auden, from September 1, 1939:
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night