Directed/Written By: Paul Schrader
Starring: Nick Nolte, James Coburn, William Dafoe, Sissy Spacek
When I learned that screenwriter Paul Schrader penned the script for
"Affliction," I thought, "Where does the line form?" With "Taxi Driver"
and "Raging Bull" on his bio, I was expecting another on-the-edge headliner
facing his share of personal demons type of movie and I was right! Instead
of Robert De Niro, the writer/director asked Nick Nolte to portray the
film's tormented soul Wade Whitehouse and he delivers with an Oscar caliber
performance. In fact, it is his haunting work here, accompanied by an
equally frightening turn by James Coburn, that overcomes a surprisingly
sluggish adaptation of Russell Banks' novel.
The film opens with William Dafoe (who narrates as well as playing Wade's
brother Rolfe) reminiscing about the tragic story of his older brother
and how things started to unravel one Halloween night in Lawford, New
Hampshire. The town's jack-of-all-trades (Wade) is the snow plow guy,
school monitor, and everyday lawman, but his most important duty is playing
daddy to his little girl Jill (Brigid Tierney) whom he loves very much.
Unfortunately, his daughter fears him as much as she loves him. It's too
bad because you can tell just how badly he wants to connect with her,
but no matter what he does -- it's just not good enough! The end result
is always the same -- the poor girl wants to go back home to her mom Lillian
(Mary Beth Hurt).
Even though Jill is very happy, Wade has these delusions that she'll
somehow be happier living with him full-time. His vivid imagination is
not just limited to his daughter. When his best friend Jack (Jim True)
goes out one morning as a hunting guide and his rich and politically connected
client suddenly dies, Wade finds his "accidentally croaked" scenario just
too convenient. He's convinced that Jack is part of an intricate conspiracy
and what actually happened in the woods was a mob hit and cover-up. Unfortunately,
no one buys Wade's far-fetched notions, but you've got to give the guy
credit for perseverance!
Although his ex-wife and daughter have given up on him, Wade still has
two cards up his sleeve that he can count on for emotional support. His
girlfriend Marge (Sissy Spacek) is a kind hearted and patient woman who's
willing to stand by her man. He's also got his baby brother Rolfe (Dafoe)
whom he's always looked after and protected. Wade continuously counts
on them for their support especially whenever he pays a visit to see his
Wade Whitehouse is (sadly) a byproduct of his old man. Even as an adult,
fear settles in whenever he has to go see his dad. We learn early on (through
the chillingly effective use of flashbacks) what a brutal monster his
father really is. Most vivid are the scenes in the dead of winter when
he put his kids to work and mocked them whenever they cried in agony.
You suffered along with Wade through his childhood and can certainly understand
why he turned out the way he did.
It is thanks to Nolte's powerhouse Oscar nominated performance, aided
by some strong support by James Coburn (who was also nominated for an
Oscar), that lifts the film from its mediocre state. Unlike "A Simple
Plan," you have to be very patient with this film. There are some dead
spots throughout along with a fine supporting cast that is completely
wasted. The dynamics between Wade and his father take time to build and
if you can overlook some far-fetched moments (the majority of Wade's presumptions)
then you'll catch one hell of a performance (one of Nolte's best) that's
worth the price of admission. Sometimes when the performance is that good
(like it is here) you have to turn the other cheek!
Nolte is perfectly cast as the burnt-out lawman who self destructs right
before our eyes. His uncontrollable outbursts not only remind you of Travis
Bickle, but because his character is undeniably sympathetic, you feel
for him in the same manner you felt for Billy Bob Thornton's character
Jacob from "A Simple Plan." Comparisons to "Cape Fear" are also inevitable
since Nolte is now the one playing the tormented soul looking for answers
that will never come his way. Wade is indeed a mess, but can we blame
him? This is an unstable man thanks to his horrific father (Coburn in
an unforgettable performance). He simply can't put things behind him because
every time he steps inside his father's house the pain resurfaces.
Nolte has always been a solid actor, but for the first time, he really
lets us get into the soul of his character and we suffer along with him.
We feel his pain and know that he wants to do good, but he doesn't have
the means to show it -- they were taken away from him at a very young
age by his ruthless father. The things he says and does as a consequence
are sadly beyond his control. He is simply a man overwhelmed by his failure
to be a part of his family's life. When he tells us that he loves his
daughter and that he's hanging on by a thread -- you believe him! You
also find yourself wanting to help him even though you know there's nothing
that you can do.
"Affliction" should be remembered as a film with two exceptional performances
that help propel it over its apparent weaknesses. It is not a perfect
film by any stretch and certain things should have been done differently,
but the agony expressed by its central character make you hang in there
and pay attention.
The film with its chilling atmosphere and wintry backdrop ends with
as many questions as it answers. It's a difficult movie to watch because
it offers very little hope and more pain than relief, but it rewards us
with a fascinating portrait of a complex man who must somehow find a way
to continue living a life which ended when he was just a child.
It is a character we may or may not be able to relate to, but one we
shouldn't miss seeing!