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Nashville Scene Family Affair

Abuse, loneliness, spasmodic violence--it's a man's world in "Affliction"

By Jim Ridley

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  The antithesis of the chick flick isn't The Dirty Dozen or some Playboy Channel meat-flogger; it's the work of Paul Schrader, the man who gave voices to Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta. The rabid loners Schrader scripted in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are among the most archetypal antiheroes in American movies, men who carry the Westerner's code of machismo to punishing extremes. And yet the ideal Schrader hero may have been the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, the subject of Schrader's fine 1985 biopic Mishima: a man obsessed with might and masculinity; a man thus driven to violent and ultimately self-destructive acts; a man who wrote of beauty so blindingly intense it hurt like a toothache--and hence had to be ripped from the world.

At the other end of the macho spectrum is Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), the hard-luck lawman at the center of Schrader's haunting new drama Affliction. The lame-duck peacekeeper in a dying New Hampshire town, Wade's the kind of guy who became a cop for the worst of reasons--because he needed something to give him power over other people. Yet even that doesn't work. The few moneyed residents treat him as a joke; his marriage has fallen apart, and with it his relationship to his young daughter. He doesn't have much beauty in his life, apart from the waitress, Margie (Sissy Spacek), who inexplicably loves him. But he does have a toothache.

Adapted from the novel by Russell Banks, Affliction appears early on to be a murder mystery. A prominent union boss died of a gunshot wound on a hunting trip with Wade's buddy Jack (Jim True); Wade suspects his pal of murder and a town-wide cover-up. The truth turns out to be much more disturbing. As Wade's life disintegrates, he's sucked back into the company of his vicious father, played with loathsome brio by James Coburn, whose only legacy is a sucker punch when his boy isn't looking. Wade's brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) managed to escape his dad's brutal beat-or-get-beaten influence to a normal, if benumbed, life far away. There's no escape for Wade.

And none for us. The movie's pace may be glacial, but Schrader's control and restraint throughout is relentless. Other Schrader dramas, like Hardcore and Light Sleeper, peter out in bloodsoaked big finishes that play like the director's own ritualistic dick-swinging fantasies. Affliction is cold, and it cuts to the bone. When the murder-mystery structure vanishes, so does the hope of catharsis or resolution; when Wade finally snaps, the violence is handled with an icy plainness that rebukes the hyped-up melodrama of Schrader's pulpier work. We hope that Wade will find a way out of his daddy's chain of pain--the "affliction" of the title--even though the movie's very first line of narration tells us he doesn't.

The weight of the Whitehouses' hand-me-down hatred hangs heavily on Nick Nolte's large frame; his performance as Wade is a gripping study in whipped-dog anguish. Nolte's rugged features and linebacker's build recall the rough-hewn leading men of Westerns past--men like Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden--so it's more shocking, more naked and pathetic, when he displays the kind of vulnerability he had in The Prince of Tides and Afterglow. Here, he's always shrinking from expected blows; Wade can't even muster the authority to make a businessman's son-in-law accept a speeding ticket. Nolte has never been better than he is standing in front of the jerk's slammed door, holding the ticket like an exploded cigar.

Only when Wade has popped his last balloon does he get his father's curse of a blessing. "You done it like a man done it," the old son-of-a-bitch crows, "the way I taught you." That's the burden Paul Schrader's macho heroes all have to carry--doing it like a man--and Wade pays for it. Wade thinks if he yanks out his throbbing tooth it'll end his suffering; he gets some booze and a pair of pliers. For the only moment in the movie, Nolte's face registers a flicker of relief: His momentary peace is all that passes for beauty in Affliction's harsh climate. And then the pain starts up again.

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