There's something about films set against a wintry backdrop that make
     critics proclaim them as masterpieces. Recent films
       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
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
     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.