By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
|Photo by Demme Todd|
Midway through Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel Affliction, Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), a New Hampshire man whose tires have just been shot out by an enraged friend, stands beside his disabled truck and punches his cheek in pain and frustration. The gesture — Wade has a chronic ache in a tooth that he will later pluck out with a pair of pliers, rinsing with Scotch — is trivial and, for all I know, a mere tic of improvisation for Nolte. But it also speaks volumes about a man going nowhere loudly, a man so afflicted by his past with a brutal father that he fritters away his present throwing punches at himself and others, including those he loves.Affliction will have its detractors, and not just because it’s a Christmas movie from hell. Some will dismiss the film as an overwrought retread of Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, and of the obsessions of its creators: Banks, cranking out another parable of crippled parents who cripple their kids; Schrader, laying another pox on human decency; Nolte, shuffling through another of his wounded-lion bits. They’re wrong. This deceptively quiet movie is a work of realist art rich in quotidian detail and a Grimm fairy tale about a community under siege from within and without. It’s also a showcase for an actor who has done suffering every which way, and still invents it anew. In an immensely disciplined rendition of a man spinning out of control, Nolte plays the blustery Wade primarily through his eyes — by turns beady with paranoia, soft with tenderness for Margie (Sissy Spacek), the sweet-natured waitress who has his number and loves him anyway, and blazing with rage against the mean drunk of a father (James Coburn, in an on-the-boil performance that perfectly reflects Nolte’s) who, however enfeebled by age, continues to ruin his son’s life.
Absurdly or properly, depending on how jaundiced is your view of law enforcement, Wade Whitehouse is a cop. As the movie opens, that doesn’t stop him from dropping his little girl, Jill (Brigid Tierney, at once funny and pathetic in a hideous tiger suit), at a Halloween party she never wanted to attend, while he slips out for a joint with his friend Jack (Jim True). When the girl’s mother (Mary Beth Hurt) shows up to take her unhappy child home, the clueless Wade lunges at the stepfather. All dead-end plans and impulses, Wade tries to file for his daughter, proposes marriage to Margie mainly as a ruse to keep his visitation rights, and gets in over his head prying into a hunting accident in which a prominent weekender, chaperoned by Jack, dies of gunshot wounds.Affliction is cleverly framed as a murder mystery. But Wade’s suspicion that his own boss, a local businessman played with wea-sely acuity by Holmes Osborne, hired Jack to kill the out-of-towner to prevent his interfering in a real estate scam, proves as much of a red herring for us as it is for Wade. The movie’s true theme is not murder, but family history repeating itself: Desperate to uncover what he thinks is a murder for hire, Wade is also grappling with the murder in his own heart, and his hurt fury at the father who put it there. Schrader has cunningly structured Affliction to hold up a series of mirrors to the predicament in which Wade is trapped. The film keeps looping back on itself in the cruel parody of home movies that are Wade’s childhood memories. A grueling scene in which Wade lashes out at his daughter when she tries to haul him off Margie echoes an incident recalled from his own youth — perhaps accurately, perhaps not, for his younger brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), a man as pathologically self-controlled as Wade is pathologically beside himself, remembers it all differently.
Like The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction is a quiet film, its snowy landscapes shot in a wintry blue light by Paul Sarossy with the same mournful lyricism he brought to Egoyan’s movie. Like that film, too, the prevailing tone of foreboding and grief is offset with flashes of deadpan comedy: Directing traffic outside the local school, Wade freezes in place, arms akimbo, his thoughts racing in a moment of self-crucifixion as absurd as it is appalling. Schrader works less hard than Egoyan to separate himself stylistically from Banks, perhaps because their sensibilities meet in a mutual attraction to austerity and extremity. As Wade’s behavior — and his luck — grows worse by the minute, our sympathy for him grows exponentially, for this is a man unable to distinguish between degrees of evil in others or himself, and therefore a man without perspective. He can’t assess his life except as a series of conspiracies, and because his father made an enemy out of him, he sees only enemies around him. When, at the end of the movie, Wade commits a horrifying act, you weep not for the victim but for the broken life of the perpetrator. Trudging away from the scene of the crime to commit another, Wade Whitehouse stands explained — but not explained away. Far from being a message movie, Affliction is a lament for a good man gone bad for nothing.
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