Atom Egoyan Essay - Critical Essays

Egoyan, Atom


Atom Egoyan 1960-

Canadian screenwriter and director.

The following entry presents an overview of Egoyan's career through 1999.

Egoyan is a Canadian screenwriter and director known for his innovative, postmodern dramas that focus on the nature of family, assimilation, identity, and alienation. His films typically feature fragmented, nonlinear storylines with characters who are isolated and emotionally paralyzed. A contemporary of Canadian film auteur David Cronenberg, Egoyan often uses video as a metaphor for memory and technology as a social filter through which his characters relate. He is best known for Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), an adaptation of the Russell Banks novel, which received two Academy Award nominations. Several film critics have included Egoyan among the best directors of his generation, applauding his experimental style and his refusal to compromise his personal vision.

Biographical Information

Egoyan was born on July 19, 1960 in Cairo, Egypt, to parents of Armenian descent. His parents were both formally trained artists, and his father owned a successful art gallery. They named their son Atom after atomic energy. In 1962 the family immigrated to Canada, where Egoyan's parents managed a furniture store in British Columbia. Egoyan faced difficulties assimilating into a community with few Armenian families. During this period, he rejected his native culture, refusing to speak Armenian altogether. Egoyan eventually became interested in theatre and began to write experimental plays. He attended the University of Toronto, graduating with a B.A. in international relations from Trinity College in 1982. While he was in college, Egoyan's creative interests expanded into the world of filmmaking. He produced his first short film, Howard in Particular, in 1979, and it won a prize at the Canadian National Exhibition's film festival. Through the 1980s Egoyan directed television episodes and made-for-television movies for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as well as American television programs filmed in Toronto. He used his salary from his television work, along with private money and government grants, to produce several independent films that he wrote and directed. His first full-length feature film was Next of Kin (1984). As Egoyan's body of work expanded, his films became increasingly popular with critics and audiences in Canada and Europe, and he won the Moscow Film Festival award for The Adjuster (1991). Egoyan used the prize money from the award to fund his next film, Calendar (1993). In 1994, he received considerable praise for Exotica, which earned the International Film Critics Award at Cannes and numerous Genie awards. His next film, The Sweet Hereafter, brought Egoyan both critical and commercial success, including Academy Award nominations and several Cannes Film Festival awards. Egoyan has continued to direct short films—including one starring famed cellist Yo Yo Ma—and has directed and written the scores of several operas. He is married to Armenian actress Arsinee Khanjian with whom he has one son.

Major Works

Throughout a career spanning more than two dozen films, Egoyan has created a highly recognizable visual and narrative style. He often revisits themes of alienation, estrangement, and dysfunctionality, particularly in family relationships. In Next of Kin, the main character flees his birth family and pretends to be the lost son of a local Albanian immigrant family in order to receive the emotional support that has been lacking in his life. The father and son in Family Viewing (1987) are engaged in a bitter power struggle: the son, Van, wants his father, Stan, to help take care of his grandmother, but Stan is content to leave her in a retirement home. Van's mother left them several years earlier, and Stan is methodically recording over their old family videos with scenes of him having sex with his mistress. Egoyan has consistently used video as a metaphor for memory, exploring the ways in which characters attempt to shape and possess their past. He portrays recorded images as a tool that his characters use to communicate with each other. In Speaking Parts (1989), one of the main characters is a screenwriter who “visits” her dead brother through a video mausoleum. The characters in Egoyan's films are often emotionally distant and unable to make personal connections. The Adjuster features a couple who live together in the same house, but who are emotionally isolated from each other. The husband, Noah, is an insurance adjuster who experiences a voyeuristic thrill in getting involved in the personal lives of his customers. His wife, Hera, works for the National Film Censor Board and secretly copies the pornographic films that she classifies. Exotica focuses on five characters whose lives center around the erotic dancers at a local nightclub. One of the characters, Francis, is a father who cannot find closure after his daughter's death. His daughter's former babysitter, Christina, is a dancer at the club, and Francis becomes emotionally dependent on watching her dance. Even while interpreting the work of others—such as his adaptations of Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter and William Trevor's Felicia's Journey—Egoyan consistently revisits his recurring themes and crafts his plots in a unique style. Egoyan's narratives often recount events in nonlinear order, mixing incidents from various time frames and omitting essential details about characters and plot events until the conclusion of the film.

Critical Reception

Critics and peers alike consider Egoyan one of the leading independent filmmakers in Canada and have compared his unusual style to those of Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Peter Greenaway. Reviewers have noted that audiences either seem to love or hate Egoyan's works, with little room in-between. His critics have argued that his films are too fragmented and that his characters lack emotional depth or passion. Other reviewers have criticized his adaptations—such as The Sweet Hereafter—for being too focused on Egoyan's own agenda and not doing justice to the source material. However, even his harshest critics have complimented Egoyan's films for their complexity and thought-provoking material. Many reviewers have applauded Egoyan for his careful attention to detail, skillful use of editing, and continuing development of his recurring cinematic themes. Egoyan has been commended by critics for his rejection of false sentimentality and his refusal to emotionally manipulate his audiences. While some reviewers judge his characters as cool and detached, others consider them realistic and unexaggerated. Characterized as an “uncompromising” filmmaker, Egoyan and his body of work have developed a strong cult following in Canada and abroad.

Principal Works

Howard in Particular [also director] (screenplay) 1979

Next of Kin [also director] (screenplay) 1984

Family Viewing [also director] (screenplay) 1987

Speaking Parts [also director] (screenplay) 1989

The Adjuster [also director] (screenplay) 1991

Calendar [also director] (screenplay) 1993

Exotica [also director] (screenplay) 1994

The Sweet Hereafter [also director and adaptor; from the novel by Russell Banks] (screenplay) 1997

Felicia's Journey [also director and adaptor; from the novel by William Trevor] (screenplay) 1999


Suzanne Moore (review date 7 October 1988)

SOURCE: “Unhappy Families,” in New Statesman and Society, October 7, 1988, p. 46–47.

[In the following review, Moore praises Egoyan's exploration of the nature of family in Family Viewing, but finds fault with his use of prostitution to suggest alienation.]

All is not well in the heart of that most sacred bastion of society—the family. If you believe what you read you will know that this most fundamental institution is under attack from a multitude of directions. Promiscuous single parents, campaigning homosexuals, morally-irresponsible television programmes and, of course, feminists who claim that the family is the site of woman's oppression par...

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Amy Taubin (essay date November–December 1989)

SOURCE: “Memories of Overdevelopment: Up and Atom,” in Film Comment, Vol. 25, No. 6, November–December, 1989, pp. 27–29.

[In the following essay, Taubin explores Egoyan's use of technology as a metaphor in Speaking Parts and Family Viewing.]

The very voluble Atom Egoyan is hesitant to say how small the budget was for Speaking Parts, his third feature. He has a theory about recent independent films—that by conforming to Hollywood production standards, they've begun to attract a broader audience. Broader, that is, than the audience for grimy, grainy 16mm. With its gracefully arcing camera movement, spookily luminous interiors, and arresting,...

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Jonathan Romney (review date June 1992)

SOURCE: A review of The Adjuster, in Sight & Sound, Vol. 2, No. 2, June, 1992, p. 38.

[In the following review, Romney praises Egoyan's work in The Adjuster, particularly his skillful use of repetition.]

[In The Adjuster,] Noah Render, an insurance loss adjuster, lives in the only occupied house on an uncompleted estate with Hera, her sister Seta and their son Simon. Called out to the scenes of fires, he arranges for clients to be lodged in a motel while they wait for their claims to be sorted. On the subway, Hera witnesses an incident involving Bubba and Mimi, a rich couple who stage elaborate sex charades for Mimi to star in. Hera works as a...

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Amy Taubin (review date June 1992)

SOURCE: “Burning Down the House,” in Sight & Sound, Vol. 2, No. 2, June, 1992, pp. 18–19.

[In the following review, Taubin explores the recurring themes common in The Adjuster and Egoyan's earlier films.]

The protagonist of The Adjuster, Atom Egoyan's discomforting fourth feature, is named Noah Render. “The allusions are so obvious, they're hysterical,” says Egoyan during an interview. “What satisfaction could there be in analysing such a name?,” he scoffs. “So what if you realise that the motel where Noah boards his clients is like his ark?” Without pausing for breath, he does an about face and gleefully runs through dictionary...

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James M. Wall (review date 3 March 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Calendar, in Christian Century, Vol. 110, No. 7, March 3, 1993, pp. 227–28.

[In the following review, Wall discusses the central plot and thematic material in Calendar.]

Canadian director Atom Egoyan is a quiet man who avoided a press conference after the initial screening of his sixth feature film, Calendar. A few of us caught up with him just outside the theater where he willingly chatted about his picture, which deals with a photographer, played by Egoyan, who like the director is from an Armenian family but doesn't speak the language. His wife plays the role of Egoyan's movie wife, but she does speak the language—which sets up...

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Chris Chang (review date November–December 1993)

SOURCE: “Ruined,” in Film Comment, Vol. 29, No. 6, November–December, 1993, p. 73.

[In the following review, Chang describes the history behind Egoyan's Calendar and explores the film's major plot elements.]

Atom Egoyan won the Moscow Prize for The Adjuster in 1991. The award took the form of one million rubles in production funding and came with the stipulation that the work be done in the (then) Soviet Union. As location, Egoyan chose Armenia, his ancestral home—then saw his budget devalued, by secession and independence, to some $4,000 U.S. Last-minute assistance from German television allowed him to get on the plane with a limited budget,...

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Bart Testa (review date Winter 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Speaking Parts, in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 238–41.

[In the following review, Testa argues that the published script of Speaking Parts fails to support Egoyan's reputation as a leading postmodern director.]

The publication of scripts of English-Canadian films is regrettably a rarity. Coach House's Speaking Parts, the script of Canadian film director Atom Egoyan's 1989 film, is a model of how a script should be presented. In addition to the script, there is an introductory essay by Professor Ron Burnett of McGill University, an interview with the director conducted by film critic Marc...

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Brian D. Johnson (essay date 3 October 1994)

SOURCE: “Exotic Atom: With Exotica, Atom Egoyan Has Become the Most Celebrated Canadian Filmmaker of His Generation,” in Maclean's, Vol. 107, No. 40, October 3, 1994, pp. 44–47.

[In the following essay, Johnson explores Egoyan's career, influences, and the filmmaker's concerns about his future.]

Rolling up to a movie premiere in a limousine is a familiar ritual. But at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Canadian director Atom Egoyan elected to walk to the North American premiere of his new movie, Exotica. Egoyan knew that refusing a limo could seem as pretentious as accepting one—but he had taken the luxury route two nights earlier...

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Kristine McKenna (review date 12 March 1995)

SOURCE: “This Director's Got a Brand Noir Bag,” in Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1995, pp. 21–23.

[In the following review, McKenna explores the differences between Exotica and Egoyan's earlier films.]

“People often describe my work as cold and clinical, but I just can't see it that way—to me it's about nothing but emotion,” says Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan.

“True, the people in my films often try to deny their emotions and usually have a hard time understanding what they're feeling. Nonetheless, the emotions are always bubbling away in there at an almost operatic level.”

The reason critics often...

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Peter Harcourt (essay date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: “Imaginary Images: An Examination of Atom Egoyan's Films,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Spring, 1995, pp. 2–14.

[In the following essay, Harcourt, who teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa, traces the themes and cinematographic techniques characteristic of Egoyan's films and places the director's work in a Canadian context.]

I'm attracted to people who are lost in a world that I can navigate.1

—Atom Egoyan

There is a sequence in Exotica, the latest film by 35-year-old Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan, that makes me think of Andrew Wyeth. There is a long...

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Jonathan Romney (review date May 1995)

SOURCE: “Exploitations,” in Sight & Sound, Vol. 5, No. 5, May, 1995, pp. 6–8.

[In the following review, Romney offers a negative assessment of Exotica, criticizing Egoyan's style of filmmaking as unfulfilling.]

Atom Egoyan makes bitterly disappointing films. They begin by stirring our curiosity—our desire to play detective or analyst, or simply our prurient longing for a glimpse of the louche, the exotic. And when finally they deliver what we're looking for, they invariably frustrate us—all we discover is that revelation can never be satisfactory. We learn that there are always more layers to the onion, or that it was never really an onion in the...

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Atom Egoyan with Richard Porton (interview date Spring 1997)

SOURCE: “Family Romances: An Interview with Atom Egoyan,” in Cineaste, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 8–16.

[In the following interview, Egoyan discusses the nature of the film industry, his approach to filmmaking, and the influence of Canadian identity.]

Widely regarded as Canada's leading independent filmmaker, Atom Egoyan is frequently hailed as brilliantly innovative and occasionally damned as a purveyor of arid cinematic parables. Egoyan's wry self-deprecation, however, allows him to view both acclaim and derision with a jaundiced eye. In fact, the critical response to Egoyan's films often seems several steps behind the director's unsparing assessments of...

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Brian Johnson (review date 8 September 1997)

SOURCE: “How Sweet It Is: His New Film Signals a Change of Direction for Egoyan,” in Maclean's, Vol. 110, No. 36, September 8, 1997, pp. 60–61.

[In the following review, Johnson compares The Sweet Hereafter with Egoyan's previous works, stating that Hereafter features more natural and fully developed characters.]

Inevitably, directors get tired of their own movies. And after finishing The Sweet Hereafter, Atom Egoyan watched it so many times that by the time it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, he no longer knew what to make of it. But last month—rested after vacationing in Italy with his wife, actress Arsinee Khanjian, and...

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Tony Rayns (review date October 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Sweet Hereafter, in Sight & Sound, Vol. 7, No. 10, October, 1997, pp. 60–61.

[In the following review, Rayns argues that Egoyan's failure to sustain a sense of community in The Sweet Hereafter detracts from the film's overall impact.]

In The Sweet Hereafter, Lawyer Mitchell Stephens arrives in Sam Dent, a small town in British Columbia, where the community is paralysed by a recent accident: the school bus, driven by Dolores Driscoll and carrying 22 children, went off an icy road and plunged into a lake, causing 14 deaths. Stephens hopes to mobilise the bereaved parents into a class-action lawsuit against the bus...

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Craig Turner (review date 23 November 1997)

SOURCE: “The Great White (North) Hope,” in Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1997, pp. 8, 94–95.

[In the following review, Turner argues that Egoyan's past works inform The Sweet Hereafter and notes ways in which the film deviates from his earlier works.]

The taxi pulls into a narrow lane in downtown Toronto's western fringes, where artists' lofts share the neighborhood with storefront restaurants and converted warehouses.

On the north side of the street, a red-brick, Victorian-era duplex unmarked by any sign houses the headquarters of Atom Egoyan, at 37 an icon of the Canadian cinema and a writer-director edging toward the center of the...

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Sharon Waxman (essay date 14 December 1997)

SOURCE: “Atom Egoyan's Particles of Faith: Director of The Sweet Hereafter Believes in Smart Audiences for His Complex Films,” in Washington Post, December 14, 1997, p. G10.

[In the following essay, Waxman notes that viewers must work to unravel the plot elements in The Sweet Hereafter.]

Watching Atom Egoyan's new film The Sweet Hereafter can be rather like living through the turbulent events it depicts.

The film tells the story of a school bus accident in a small rural Canadian town and the big-city lawyer—himself a tormented soul—who arrives looking for a lawsuit.

As the film wends its way through the town's...

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Stephen Hunter (review date 25 December 1997)

SOURCE: “The Sweet Hereafter: A Cry of Hope,” in Washington Post, December 25, 1997, p. C01.

[In the following review, Hunter suggests that The Sweet Hereafter's ambiguity and unusual chronology are among its strengths, but notes that these elements may bother some viewers.]

Here's one way to look at it: Man is a meaning-seeking creature.

Pitiful being, he cannot accept the random cruelty of the universe. That is his biggest failing, the source of his unhappiness and possibly of his nobility as well. He paws through disasters with but one question for God: Why? And God never answers.

He certainly doesn't answer in...

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James M. Wall (review date 18 February 1998)

SOURCE: A review of The Sweet Hereafter, in Christian Century, Vol. 115, No. 5, February 18, 1998, p. 163.

[In the following review, Wall describes The Sweet Hereafter as emotionally demanding and calls Hereafter one of the best films of 1997.]

Over the past few months I have led discussions of three films that I count among the top pictures released in 1997. Two of the discussions were in religious settings, the other in a secular setting, but I found the same range of responses: some participants picked up on the religious dimensions of the films while others wondered what had happened to just plain fun at the movies.


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Patricia Pearson (essay date April 1998)

SOURCE: “The Sweet Here and Now,” in Saturday Night, Vol. 113, No. 3, April, 1998, pp. 67–72.

[In the following essay, Pearson compares the commercial and critical success of The Sweet Hereafter to Egoyan's background as an independent screenwriter and director.]

Atom Egoyan always said he was deeply suspicious of the Oscars. Then he got nominated.

The first time I spied Atom Egoyan, at a Christmas party for Toronto's arts and letters set, the handsome thirty-seven-year-old director was engrossed in conversation with Greg Gatenby, head of the International Festival of Authors. Slightly hunched, with one hand grasping his chin, he seemed...

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Atom Egoyan with Richard Porton (interview date Winter 1999)

SOURCE: “The Politics of Denial: An Interview with Atom Egoyan,” in Cineaste, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1999, p. 39.

[In the following interview, Egoyan describes his development of the Hilditch character in Felicia's Journey, his relationship with author William Trevor, and the influence of Alfred Hitchcock.]

Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997) was the Canadian director's breakthrough film. While Egoyan had enjoyed a cult following during the 1980s, The Sweet Hereafter appeared on more than 200 ‘Ten Best’ Lists in 1998 and won him a much larger audience. The initial reception for his latest film, Felicia's Journey, while...

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Richard Porton (review date Winter 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Felicia's Journey, in Cineaste, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1999, p. 42.

[In the following review, Porton offers a positive assessment of Felicia's Journey, noting Egoyan's skill in creating relationships between characters.]

Neither a straightforward genre film nor a simple portrait of mental aberration, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey brilliantly subverts the conventions of the standard Hollywood thriller as well as the cliches of the by-now hackneyed serial killer subgenre. While Egoyan's adaptation of William Trevor's novel possesses superficial affinities to the work of Hitchcock and Chabrol, the Canadian director's more...

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Brian D. Johnson (essay date 13 September 1999)

SOURCE: “Atom's Journey: Canada's Celebrated Director Reveals the Rite of Passage behind His Cinematic Obsessions,” in Maclean's, September 13, 1999, p. 54.

[In the following essay, Johnson considers the unique voice in Egoyan's films and explores the sources of his recurring cinematic themes.]

Lunch with Atom Egoyan. He arrives late, on the run in a day of interviews. This is Toronto, his home town, but he might as well be on tour. His personal publicist hovers close by; a driver waits at the curb outside the restaurant. Affable and full of energy, Egoyan takes a seat in the corner booth, a dark wood enclosure with a thick curtain that can be drawn for privacy....

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Patricia Hluchy (review date 15 November 1999)

SOURCE: “Starvation of the Soul: Atom Egoyan's Latest Is a Troubling Minor Masterpiece,” in Maclean's, November 15, 1999, p. 148.

[In the following review, Hluchy offers a positive assessment of Felicia's Journey, arguing that it is less contrived than Egoyan's earlier work.]

William Trevor's 1994 novel Felicia's Journey is a small masterpiece of literary creepiness, a tale of deception told with exhilarating insight. Atom Egoyan's adaptation of the Irish author's book is a small masterpiece of cinematic creepiness, in which the perversion comes with a large measure of humanity. The tale of a guileless 17-year-old Irish girl who leaves home and falls...

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Stephen Hunter (review date 19 November 1999)

SOURCE: “Felicia's Journey: Soup to Nut,” in Washington Post, November 19, 1999, p. C05.

[In the following review, Hunter focuses on Egoyan's treatment of the serial killer Mr. Hilditch in Felicia's Journey.]

Felicia's Journey offers something new, at least: the figure of the sociopathic killer as lovelorn lonely guy who only needs a nice hug to set him free.

This creepy but compelling image is at the center of the film that director Atom Egoyan chose to make after the sublime The Sweet Hereafter. Like Hereafter, it is derived from a distinguished text, a prize-winning novel by the highly regarded Irish novelist William...

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Further Reading


Diamond, John. Review of The Sweet Hereafter, by Atom Egoyan. New Statesman (26 September 1997): 56–57.

Diamond suggests how a Hollywood version of The Sweet Hereafter might have differed from Egoyan's, and argues that the film—unlike Egoyan's earlier works—has a sense of hopefulness beneath the surface.

Egoyan, Atom with Lawrence Chua. “Atom's Id.” Artforum 33, No. 7 (March 1995): 25–28.

In this interview, Egoyan discusses his screenwriting process and the importance of colonial power in Exotica.

Howe, Desson. “Film Notes: After The Sweet...

(The entire section is 458 words.)