Directed by Paul Schrader
Cast: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Mary Beth Hurt, Willem Dafoe, Jim True, Marian Seldes, Holmes Osborne, Brigid Tierney, Sean McCann, Wayne Robson, Eugene Lipinski.
1997 114 minutes
Rated: (for violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 8, 1999.
Paul Schrader's "Affliction" is such an angry and bitter motion picture that you can almost physically feel the emotional coldness that is brewing under the surface of the two central characters who are living in the wintry, snowy landscape of New Hampshire: a brutal, insensitive father (James Coburn) whose shockingly heartless and cruel character traits seem to be rubbing off on his son, Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), a small-town sheriff in his fifties.
As "Affliction" opens, it is Halloween night, although it certainly doesn't appear to be, as the entire town is covered in a heavy blanket of snow. Wade is taking his young daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), to a Halloween party, but before the night is over, the unhappy Jill has called her mother and Wade's ex-wife, Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), to come and get her. Wade is outraged by this action and is fed up of being a stranger to his daughter, so much so that he becomes set on aquiring an attorney to start a custody battle. The following day, a hunting accident involving one of Wade's friends goes awry, leaving the other man, who slipped on the snow and ice and shot himself, dead. Although there is no evidence that would lead anyone to believe otherwise, Wade is convinced that there was a conspiracy to murder him, and that maybe even the mob is in on it. Finally, there is a love interest in Wade's life, Maggie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), an understanding and caring waitress who only wants to make Wade happy. From the first shot of Wade, it is obvious that he has an edgy temper, and as the film progresses, we are treated to glimpses of his traumatic childhood, as he was constantly bullied and terrorized by his abusive and emotionally wounding father. There are slight traces of his father in Wade, to be sure, and he knows it himself, but seems trapped, not only in his life, but in what is quickly becoming an inevitable transformation into his father, whom he desperately hates.
"Affliction" reminded me of an equally brilliant previous film from 1998, "The Celebration," which dealt with many of the same topics, such as the hurtful wounds and hatred in a family. Based on a novel by Russell Banks, whose other book, "The Sweet Hereafter," was adapted superbly for the screen in 1997 by Atom Egoyan, "Affliction" is a superior piece of work and an enormous accomplishment for director Paul Schrader, who wrote such film classics as 1976's "Taxi Driver" and 1980's "Raging Bull," and specializes in the underlying dark emotions of the human psyche.
One of the pleasures I always get from a motion picture like "Affliction," although the subject matter is difficult at times, is its multi-layered story. It would be easy enough to create a film about a man losing his grip with saneness, but it is completely another thing to create multiple subplots, such as the hunting accident mystery, which may just be part of Wade's deterioration; his relationship with his confused daughter; and his romantic involvement with Maggie. All of these elements smoothly come together to form an extraordinary tapestry of the human conditon, and a more affirming character study of Wade, who is not a bad man, but finds his grim future inescapable.
As Wade, Nick Nolte gives, perhaps, the best performance of the year. He is flawless throughout, and seamlessly is able to convey all of his character's feelings to the audience without spelling it out with words. Wade is heartbreaking because of the reality that he knows he is headed for, but doesn't want to go to, and Nolte is certainly up to the challenge. Meanwhile, James Coburn is hateful and even terrifying as Wade's father, and whenever he appeared on screen I was taken over by a deep sense of dread at what he might say or do. If an actor can make you believe he is as mean and sick of a human being as Coburn does, it is a sign of an exceptional performance. Lending fine support are Sissy Spacek, who was refreshing to see after a considerable absense from the screen lately, and in her portrayal of Maggie Fogg, we sympathize with her plight as she sees the man she loves slowly begin to turn into his nightmarish father. And as Jill, Wade's daughter, Brigid Tierney gives an amazing performance, for we believe that she is her character, a young girl in the middle of her love, and fear, of her own father, and her longing to be in the confines of the safety of her mother. The film is occasionally narrated by Rolfe, Wade's younger brother (Willem Dafoe), who is living far away but briefly makes an appearance a little over an hour into the film.
Adding to the effectiveness of the picture is the simple, yet perfectly realized, music score by Michael Brook, and the blustery, atmospheric cinematography by Paul Sarossy, which grows to become an effective metaphor for the isolation that appears between the characters.
As I watched "Affliction," I was not quite sure where everything was headed, and the masterfully-done climax caught me by utter surprise, and left me with feelings of uneasiness, which was entirely appropriate since the film was only staying true to itself. All of the plot threads never seemed false or out of place, and I never once doubted the reasoning and emotions of the characters. Paul Schrader not only shows his grand abilities of directing the film, but also for writing its remarkable screenplay, which, I doubt, could have been any better. "Affliction" is one of the most powerful and heartwrenching films of 1998.