Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Paul Schrader
Stars: Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe, Mary Beth Hurt, Jim True, Homes Osborne, Brigid Tierney, Marian Seldes, Sean McCann, Wayne Robson, Brawley Nolte.
Adapted from the novel by Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter, etc), Affliction is a powerful, dramatic tale that looks at the disturbing pattern of male violence, and explores how this brutal legacy is often passed on from father to son.
The pathology of male violence is a theme common to much of writer/director Paul Schrader’s work (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Blue Collar, etc), but rarely has it been tackled in such uncompromising and potent style before. Schrader seems to understand these characters and their motivations, and his sympathetic and insightful handling results in a compelling and hauntingly poignant character study, that is both chillingly realistic and deeply disturbing.
Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is the sheriff of Lawford, a depressed and sleepy New Hampshire hamlet. Reduced to being little more than a glorified traffic cop, he is increasingly frustrated by his demeaning role. He holds the job purely at the whim of the town’s corrupt and oily businessman (Homes Osborne). Wade’s impending divorce grows ugly and bitter, the relationship between him and his daughter grows more strained and distant, and a massive toothache is causing him pain. Wade turns a hunting accident into a murder investigation, in an attempt to distract his attention away from the real causes of his anger and frustration.
Wade’s problems lie in his relationship with his father (’60’s action star James Coburn, cast largely against type). For a long time, the young Wade (played by Nolte’s own son Brawley) absorbed the full force of the brutal punishment dished out by his drunken, abusive father, to protect his mother and younger siblings. Younger brother Rolph (Willem Dafoe, who provides the voice over narration) escaped this brutal environment, but reluctantly returns home briefly following the death of their mother. The reunion is overshadowed by the intimidating presence of their father and his violent legacy. The emotionally crippled Wade sees himself becoming more and more like his father, and finally takes drastic action to exorcise his personal demons and find salvation.
Affliction unfolds like a low burning fuse as it works its way towards the inevitable explosion. Nolte is superb as the put-upon Wade who is slow to understand the true nature of his affliction. In one of his best, most heartfelt and moving performances in a long time, he brings a sense of sympathy and compassion to his complex character.
In his Oscar winning role, Coburn perfectly nails the abusive, domineering, contemptuous and unforgiving father, who bemoans the loss of real, hard men in a society growing soft. He is a monstrous figure, but somehow Coburn gives the character a surprisingly human dimension and depth. Sissy Spacek makes the most of her smaller role as Wade’s waitress girlfriend, who finally decides to leave this volatile relationship before tragedy strikes.
Affliction explores many themes common to Banks’ work – dysfunctional families, psychologically damaged men, the tense relationship between fathers and their children, small towns with dark secrets, difficult moral dilemmas – all set against the coldness of an unforgiving, snow covered landscape. The harsh, wintry landscape is almost a character in the story, and somehow adds to the chilling atmosphere that pervades the film.
Like the recent American History X, Affliction is an important film dealing with a serious theme, and deserves to be seen. However, this bleak film has proved difficult for its local distributors, who clearly had no idea how to market it and were going to release it straight to video.