Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Affliction

By Russell Smith

FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

D: Paul Schrader; with Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe, Mary Beth Hurt. (R, 110 min.)

"Some days I feel just like a whipped dog," says Wade Whitehouse (Nolte). The sad, uncomprehending look in his eyes both confirms his words and foreshadows the ones that follow: "Ö someday, I swear, I'm gonna bite back." Wade, an ill-paid and ill-regarded small-town cop in New Hampshire, is a guy we all know only too well. Middle-aged in body but utterly used up in spirit, his main source of satisfaction in life appears to be a grim commitment to slogging robotically through his remaining years -- if only to spite the ill-defined outside forces he blames for his failures and disappointments. In this magnificent, profoundly tragic film, Nolte and Coburn each turn in career-best performances as a father and son who embody the ancient, seemingly ineradicable male pathology of violence, retribution, and the slow death of the soul. The story is based on a book by Russell Banks, whose work was also the basis for Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. Paul Schrader's treatment of the material (he also wrote the screenplay) bears some similarities to Egoyan's in tone and setting, but there's a crucial difference in how the narrative unfolds. Here, events build inexorably toward rather than from a ghastly moment of violence, and this imbues even the most innocuous scenes with an icy sense of dread. As we learn through flashbacks and the narrative spoken by Wade's younger brother, Rolfe (Dafoe), Wade took the brunt of the childhood beatings and verbal put-downs from their despicable, alcoholic dad, Glen (Coburn). Wade's response is one so familiar we've come to regard it, on some level, as quintessentially male: He shuts down vast sectors of his emotional life to dull the pain of the shame, anger, and confusion that would otherwise blight every waking hour. Wade is unusual in that he understands his affliction better than most, and even allows himself occasional furloughs from his psychic prison when he's with his tender-hearted girlfriend (Spacek) or his young daughter. This system works, after a fashion, until a series of shattering events, including his mom's death and his investigation of a suspicious hunting accident, force him to recognize how helpless he really is against the disease he's inherited. As familiar as the rudiments of this story are, I don't believe I've ever seen them presented with such compassion, eloquence, and sheer, elemental force. And I find it doubly amazing that Schrader, whose previous directorial efforts are better categorized as meditations on psychological torment than embodiments of it, could create a work of such devastating power. There are a few moments where the narrative trowels on Oprah-like pop psych banalities that serve only to belabor points the action makes abundantly clear. But as a whole, Affliction stands as a career benchmark for Paul Schrader (whose ability to divine the untapped potential of Our Man Flint is the least of his accomplishments here) and confirmation of Nolte's status as one of the more resourceful character actors working today. Come what may, it's surely one of the best movies that'll open in Austin this year, and it may be the best ever made on this grimly fascinating subject.
4.5 stars

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