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Affliction

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 5 February 1999

  Written and Directed by Paul Schrader,
based on the novel by Russell Banks.

Starring Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn
and Willem Dafoe.

 

There are a helluva lot of things more depressed than the economy in the eternally cold, fictional New Hampshire town that is the diseased heart of Affliction, and you’ll be aching for a mental pick-me-up and a hot cup of java by film’s end. You won’t get it (until after you leave the theater), but director-writer Paul Schrader fashions a marvelous tale of one man’s downward emotional spiral in a world in which he alienates/eliminates his family and friends. It’s entrancing in its slow pacing and lingering, sparse score (by Michael Brook), and only after repeated viewings might you fully appreciate this film.

Behind the snow drifts of this overcast, fictional New England community are the secrets of past abuse and the onslaught of future progress, with a dash of contemporary murder mystery tossed in as a link. Russell Banks’ 1989 novel forms the core of this dark tale, effectively lensed by cinematographer Paul Sarossy, who was also behind the camera for the adaptation of the author’s The Sweet Hereafter. Shrader, responsible for writing some of the greatest

screenplays of the last twenty years (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), brings a distinctive style to Affliction, apparently following closely the imagery of Banks’ underlying material. The visual style nearly plays like another character on screen, be it the somber footage filled with long, wintry shadows, the hand-held visions of the protagonist’s childhood, or the monotone re-enactments of possible criminal behavior in the backwoods and back rooms of snow-bound, four-wheel-drive Lawford.

Our story begins on Halloween as the town’s children parade in costume before the local officials, but the horrors lay within the mind of Wade Whitehouse, part-time sheriff/glorified traffic cop in this one horse town. Bitterly divorced from his ex, his limited visits from their young daughter, Jill, are fraught with her excessive whining and ill-at-ease pleas for a quick return to comfort of the home of her mom and stepfather. Meanwhile, the local diner fills with provincials who harp on sad accounts of purported "bad blood" beatings at the Whitehouse farm when Wade was growing up.

Wade also puts in countless hours plowing snow for prominent businessman, land owner Gordon "Our Business is Going in the Hole" Larivierre (Holmes Osborne), who appears steeped in dubious shenanigans with Mel Gordon (Steve Adams), the rich son-in-law of soon to be deceased Massachusetts union leader/ugly American Evan Twombley (Steve Adams), vacationing in town and out hunting deer on a disastrous hunt with guide Jack Hewitt (Jim True), Wade’s best friend whose baseball career in semi-pro short circuited.

Nick Nolte fills the snow boots of the lawman whose neurons misfire, and he’s primed for another Academy Award nomination this time, putting in a controlled performance as a repressed aggressive. What’s on screen is much better than his shouting match show in The Thin Red Line. Nolte tempers his breakdown through deliberate synaptic freezes and disposition losses, obviously well tutored under the eye of his director. I don’t feel the actor will win, but I’d put even money on James Coburn in the supporting category as Glen Whitehouse, Wade’s abusive, hard-drinking father, relishing in the role of a lifetime, much like Burt Reynolds’ bolt-out-of-the-blue in 1997’s Boogie Nights. Coburn, also seen in a small part in Payback opposite Mel Gibson, explodes in a damning, vicious character, and is barely recognizable in the grainy, home movie style flashbacks that haunt his son’s memories. One definitive sequence of Coburn’s thespian power follows the death of the family matriarch, bringing together father, both brothers, and their sister, a devout catholic (bumper sticker: "Are you ready for the rapture?") for an impromptu prayer session in the family living room, brought to disruptive end when the depraved father rants on about his kids being Jesus freaks and candy asses.

Willem Dafoe, who starred in the Shrader’s Light Sleeper and whose career took a nose dive after his appearance in mega-turkey Speed 2: Cruise Control, is acceptable in basically a voice over role, providing narration and long-distance comfort as Wade’s younger brother Rolfe, a Boston University professor. Rounding out the top talent is Sissy Spacek as sensitive, sensible earth mother Maggie Fogg, long-time waitress at Wickham’s diner and potential marital material for Wade. She warms the screen like a downy quilt, fighting a battle against loneliness, learning, too late, that her hulking ally and bed partner is a walking time bomb. Look for her appearing a very different, hilarious role this month as a wacky housewife in the nuclear comedy Blast From the Past.

It is Wade, eventually, who flakes out. The like-father, like-son analogy lies beneath the surface through much of the film, erupting after the offspring plays home dentist and pulls his own bothersome tooth with a pair of pliers. It’s a short, painful scene, with the extracted molar prominent against his red-eyed, tear-streaked face, the tooth’s removal lifting the physical pain that perhaps has obscured the patient’s mental anguish. Earlier in the film, Wade commiserates with his brother that he feels like a whipped dog, about to bite back. Affliction doesn’t carry any fore-warnings for its viewers of the depression to follow. If your looking for action, adventure, romance, etc., pick a different auditorium at your local multiplex (hence the few walk-outs at a public preview). But if you want a personal, compelling tale with a touch of intrigue, let Affliction haunt you for a couple of hours.


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