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A Sad Man, A Bad Man, and Two Brawling Moms

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.

There’s neither message nor lament in John

Boorman’s fabulous The General, which is also about a man who’s out of control before every authority but his own. The difference is that he makes a thriving career out of being a loose cannon. Martin Cahill, a Dublin gangster who masterminded a series of astonishing heists during the 1980s and pocketed over $60 million in stolen goods during his 20-year career, was a prankster and a thug who thumbed his nose with equal disdain at the Irish police, the IRA and the Ulster Unionists. Though many were hurt by his escapades, the iconoclastic Cahill must have come as light relief to Ireland, where partisan affiliation is served along with mother’s milk. He was also a public scandal who lived openly in a ménage à trois with his wife and her sister (and sired a brood of children with both), and a scourge with a reputation for sadistic revenge and iron discipline within the ranks of his gang of hand-picked thugs. Cahill didn’t smoke or drink, loved his kids, remained faithful to his women, and spurned the drug culture that overwhelmed Dublin’s underworld in the 1980s. His one great love was stealing, which he did with style, meticulous planning and conspicuous success until ill health and betrayal put an end to him.

It’s lucky for us that Mel Gibson didn’t get his paws on Cahill’s story, for he’d have cheapened this hugely contradictory man, as he did William Wallace in Braveheart, into a textbook Robin Hood crusading for the welfare of the Dublin oppressed. Boorman, whose house in Ireland was once burgled by Cahill, is too sophisticated for that kind of reductive claptrap, nor is he interested in the usual bio-pic explanations for Cahill’s pathological charisma. No wicked parents appear in The General, beyond a brief appearance in grainy flashback by Cahill’s mother, laughing over the stolen booty brought home by her young son. (Cahill as a boy is fittingly played by Eamonn Owens, the young star of The Butcher Boy, whose title character might have grown into a Martin Cahill.)

Though The General is shot in a gorgeously textured black and white that hints at documentary, there’s nothing dispassionate about the movie. Dispassion is a foreign language for the flammable Boorman, who loves a good myth as much as he loves unpacking it. If what happens to Cahill in the film’s opening scene reminds us soberly that even myths are vulnerable, the rest of the movie is a rambunctious tease, complete with jazzy score, that keeps flirting with — then pulling back from — the glorification of its real-life subject. With his overhanging gut and hooded anorak, his greasy hair plastered to one side and one hand perennially hovering over his face to avoid identification, Brendan Gleeson’s Cahill hardly looks the stuff of Arthurian legend. Yet Gleeson’s marvelously capricious rendering wrings worlds of charisma from this mercurial man, by turns tender father, vindictive Godfather, and naughty boy to the plodding detective (played with weary grace by Jon Voight, co-star of Boorman’s Deliverance) who recognizes both Cahill’s promise and his tragedy.

It’s a brilliant performance, and Gleeson is doubtless taking studio meetings by the dozen as we speak. More power to him, but I hope he sloughs off the soubriquet — "the Irish Depardieu" — that’s being bandied right, left and center. Depardieu sold his soul to Hollywood for a Green Card and a mess of pottage, then slipped off the map into obscurity and the occasional swordsman epic. If Gleeson doesn’t choose carefully while he’s on top, he could end up as point man for the next five Irish bomb dramas. He’s way too good for that.

And so to the message movie. If your kids are

barking at the new spouse, or vice versa, if the old spouse is barking at the new spouse, or vice versa, if you are barking at all relevant spouses and kids, this one’s for you. Or would be if it were in any significant way a movie about stepfamilies. In truth, Stepmom is a PSA about how cancer makes everybody behave themselves at Christmas. And under director Chris Columbus’ guidance, the wicked mother is not stepmom, but mom. It takes five minutes to establish that leather-panted fashion photographer Isabel (Julia Roberts) is very good at her job (she even knows how to say, "It’s a wrap!"); five more to establish that she’s very bad at parenting the offspring of her very much older lover, Luke (Ed Harris); and a further 80 minutes to show her growing up. Much of this time is spent in forbearing reaction shots as Luke’s flannel-shirted soon-to-be-ex-wife Jackie (Susan Sarandon) yells at her. Meanwhile, supermom proves she’s a superbitch for close to an hour, then — in the hopeless stages of terminal cancer — warms to her rival, while the recalcitrant kids go from horrid to gooey.

Stepmom’s screenplay credits are as long as your arm — a sign of copious rewriting, none of which helped much. The movie is based on young co-writer Gigi Levangie’s experiences as a stepparent, and she has, to put it mildly, a rather partial view of domestic politics in such families. If she is to be believed, all those middle-aged men are rushing to rob the cradle because their middle-aged wives have turned into harridans and houseproud bores. Admittedly, there is great satisfaction in watching Sarandon spit Bette Davis fire in all directions before caving in to maturity and earning back the affection of her former husband. But what if the shoe were on the other foot and stepmom, not mom, expired of a disease that made her retch unbecomingly into the toilet bowl? Would Luke go back to the wife for whom he now has nothing but warm feelings, or make a beeline for the nearest babysitter?


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