There's something about films set against a wintry backdrop that make
critics proclaim them as masterpieces. Recent films THE SWEET HEREAFTER,
FARGO and A SIMPLE PLAN spring to mind. Maybe it's all the New England
winters I endured growing up, but of that trio, I really only liked Atom Egoyan's
film that was adapted from Russell Banks' novel. So I guess it should come
as no surprise that I responded to AFFLICTION Paul Schrader's adaptation of
another Banks novel.
Recall that Schrader is the writer of TAXI DRIVER and the director of
LIGHT SLEEPER and his quintessential hero is a lonely, often angry macho guy.
In Banks' novel the main character is Wade Whitehouse (well-played by Nick
Nolte), the police officer of a small New Hampshire town who supplements his
income working odd jobs for a local businessman. His life begins to unravel
when a visiting union boss dies in a questionable hunting accident. Wade begins
to suspect the man was murdered and that his friend Jack (played by Jim True,
who later changed his name to Jim True-Frost following his marriage) is
responsible. Coupled with the myriad messes in his personal life, Wade
spirals into a chain of events that seems almost preordained.
In an economical scene, Schrader introduces the audience to the character
and sets up the themes for what follows. Wade is driving across snowy roads
to get his daughter Jill to the town's Halloween party. She is clearly scared of
her father and he cannot hide his anger as he realizes his daughter would like
to be anywhere else. Whitehouse is clearly a major screw-up. He leaves Jill
alone at the party and drives off with friends to get high. When he returns, he
discovers his daughter has called her mother and when Wade's ex- wife arrives
with her wealthy husband, bitter words are exchanged. Wanting to compete but
knowing he can't, he concocts a plan to get custody of his daughter. Whitehouse
proposes to his long-suffering girlfriend, a sweet-tempered waitress Margie
(Sissy Spacek) and he dreams of creating a home. In flashbacks shot like
grainy home movies, however, we see his childhood at the hands of his abusive,
alcoholic father (James Coburn). Visiting the old man in the unheated home,
Wade makes the horrible discovery that his mother has frozen to death in her
bed. Her funeral reunites Wade with his siblings, a sister who has taken refuge
in religion as a Born-Again Christian, and his younger brother, who seems
to have escaped the titular curse by running away and becoming an academic.
Schrader has skillfully turned Banks' novel into a compelling character
study. One of the fascinations for him was that while the work begins as one
genre (a murder mystery), it eventually embraces broader issues, most notably
behavioral patterns affected by alcohol and brutality. Man's capacity for violence
and destruction have been favorite themes for Schrader in his earlier work and
with AFFLICTION, he reaches a new zenith. His script is a model of how
to streamline a dense work of fiction. As a director, Schrader elicits superlative
performances from Nolte, Coburn and Hurt. Spacek has perhaps the most
difficult role and while she does yeoman work, she seemed underutilized. That,
perhaps, is a function of the fact that this is the man's story and her character
is there to serve. While he started off in pretty boy roles, Nolte has grown into
a fine character actor and 1998 proved a banner year for him. In tandem with
his galvanic supporting turn in Terrence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE, his
performance in AFFLICTION marks him as one of America's finest performers.
Nolte makes Wade's predicament palpable. One sympathizes with him yet one
is also shocked by the levels of anger seething in him. He is a walking
time-bomb but Nolte infuses the character with such skill that he is
Nolte's brilliance is matched by James Coburn, who delivers one of the
best performances of his career. Using his booming baritone and his powerful
frame, he essays a terrifying bully, a man who beats his sons and is careless
enough not to notice his wife's death.
In the supporting roles, young Bridget Tierney as Nolte's daughter
perfectly delineates the child's unspoken fear of her father. A nearly
unrecognizable Mary Beth Hurt offers a strongly etched turn as Wade's bitter
ex-wife, a woman fully cognizant of his potential outbursts. Spacek, as noted,
does well with her underdeveloped role. Willem Dafoe contributes a fine turn
as Wade's brother and Holmes Osborne proves a scene-stealer as the oily
businessman for whom Wade works. On the technical front, the great Canadian
director of photography Paul Sarossy bathes AFFLICTION in the proper lighting
and his camerawork greatly enhances the underlying tension of the story.
AFFLICTION is one of those films that will probably have to rely on
word of mouth and reviews to find its audience. Those who seek out this
powerful film will not be disappointed.
Rating: A -
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.