Where to begin with Atom Egoyan

A beginner’s path through the puzzlebox narratives of Atom Egoyan.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Why this might not seem so easy

Excluding contributions to anthology films, Canada-based auteur Atom Egoyan has nearly 20 feature credits to his name as a director. But Egoyan’s work also extends to theatre, opera, art installations and music. While footage of some of his installations can be found on YouTube, and a number of his shorts have a home among the extras on disc releases of his features, a full portrait of him as an artist working across multiple fields is nigh on impossible to achieve without access to any archives the man himself might have.

Atom EgoyanUlysse del Drago

In terms of content, something that may potentially put off newcomers to Egoyan’s work are the hermetic worlds in which many of them, particularly his early string of features, operate. Intense emotions are repressed and human interaction is often communicated through transmitted images. Before Exotica (1994) and the twice Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter (1997) brought him wider recognition and commercial success, Egoyan, alongside fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, was one of North American cinema’s key chroniclers of life in the developing video age, where the nature of human relationships radically altered in the wake of technology’s expanding role in our lives. Bureaucracy and other power structures also tend to isolate characters in his films. They are about alienation and so can be alienating.

Many of Egoyan’s hypnotic narratives involve characters watching other people from a distance, even those with whom they are ostensibly close. Real intimacy is often discouraged by the tools designed to bring people closer together, sometimes only serving to keep them apart.

Egoyan’s best films also establish him as a master of cinematic puzzles, with many using fragmented narratives for emotionally resonant effect, rather than showy trickery. An example of this comes in The Sweet Hereafter where the relationships of two separate father and daughter pairings, the sequences in question spaced two years apart, are juxtaposed for precise dramatic effect. An emotional narrative sustaining a specific mood is favoured over a chronologically linear one.

The best place to start – Exotica

Exotica, Egoyan’s commercial breakthrough, is the culmination of his early career’s thematic and aesthetic interests, and stars a number of his regular past and future collaborators: Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar, David Hemblen and Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan’s wife.

Exotica (1994)

Set around the eponymous strip club, the film parcels out its story information with one offbeat detail at a time, gradually exposing the relationships and traumas of its ensemble – which also includes the magnetic Mia Kirshner as Christina, a dancer – while withholding narrative points in a way that builds to an incredibly cathartic sequence of pay-offs that drastically alter one’s previous perception of the story. Rewarding repeat viewings, Exotica is a gut-wrenching exploration of grief management, facades and the performative elements of love and lust.

What to watch next

Now you should move on to The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan’s most well-known and praised film. His first adaptation – here of a Russell Banks novel – concerns the fallout of a bus crash in which most of the small community’s children are killed. A morally suspect city lawyer (Ian Holm) arrives in town to direct citizens’ rage into a class-action lawsuit, although his long estrangement to his own daughter, lost to years of drug addiction, suggests his projected compassion to the grieving parents may not be entirely insincere. A spellbinding and overwhelmingly sad film, it retains many of Egoyan’s pet themes, including sexual aberrance, but with a slightly less cerebral quality.

Speaking Parts (1989)

For British viewers, all of Egoyan’s features up to and including The Sweet Hereafter are handily available in a box set released on Blu-ray and DVD by Curzon Artificial Eye. Everything contained within, including micro-budget debut Next of Kin (1984), is worth viewing, but the crown jewel, aside from the aforementioned breakthrough successes, is Speaking Parts (1989). An operatic love triangle, it sees a screenwriter become involved with an aspiring actor, initially just wanting him to be cast in a deeply personal movie based on her dead brother, whom she watches in a video mausoleum. Meanwhile, the actor’s colleague at the hotel where he also works habitually rents the films in which he appears as an extra.

Where not to start

The popular narrative concerning Egoyan’s feature career is that nothing he’s directed since The Sweet Hereafter has reached the highs of that film or anything he made before it. But that’s not to say that there’s no merit to any of his features from the last 20 years. You just have to be mindful that his greatest strengths as a cinematic storyteller aren’t as immediately apparent in the later works.

Felicia's Journey (1999)

Felicia’s Journey (1999) adapted William Trevor’s Ireland and England-set novel and is probably the most fondly-regarded film of Egoyan’s career’s second half, but as it’s so drastically different in setting and period trappings from everything else, it’s not a representative place to start. A return to the history of Armenia, where Egoyan’s parents are from, with Ararat (2002) brought him back to more familiar territory, having used Armenia as a setting for Calendar (1993).

Chloe (2009)

A sleazy, jumbled investigative mystery set in both 1970s and 1950s Los Angeles, Where the Truth Lies (2005) started his then uncharacteristic move towards mainstream thrillers, which has proved a tricky transition. On that note, his highest-grossing film worldwide is Chloe (2009), a Julianne Moore-starring erotic thriller that’s a remake of the French film Nathalie… (2003); it was the first feature directed by Egoyan that he didn’t write. That continued for Devil’s Knot (2013), a dramatisation of the story of the West Memphis Three, a trio of American teenagers unjustly convicted of child murder in the early 1990s.

Devil’s Knot and immediate follow-up The Captive (2014) received the worst reviews of Egoyan’s career, though his most recent effort, the David Thewlis-led drama Guest of Honour (2019), has had some of his most positive notices since Adoration in 2008. The 2015 elderly Nazi-hunter drama Remember, starring Christopher Plummer, is worth a look for one of Martin Landau’s final performances.