Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Affliction

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 8, 1999:  Paul Schrader has always been one of America's most iconoclastic film figures. Sometimes a writer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Mosquito Coast), sometimes a director (Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, The Comfort of Strangers), Schrader bridges the wide gap between mainstream polish and envelope-pushing edginess. Although his well-honed skills brand him as one of Hollywood's top talents, Schrader seems most comfortable when making his viewers slightly uncomfortable.

Schrader's latest dual-duty effort is no exception to the rule. With Affliction, Schrader serves as both writer and director, adapting Pulitzer Prize nominee Russell Banks' unsettling rustic crime novel of the same name. Labeling Affliction a "crime" story is a bit of a misnomer. Although, initially, the film bears a passing resemblance to such icy northeastern crime flicks as Fargo and A Simple Plan, Affliction quickly metamorphoses into a frightening psychological study of American masculinity and the indelible nature of familial violence.

Nick Nolte stars as Banks' protagonist, Wade Whitehouse--a middle-aged cop on the payroll of a tiny, economically depressed New Hampshire town. Wade is saddled with a bitchy ex-wife, an unruly daughter, an alcoholic father and--to top it all off--one hell of a toothache. Though Wade's job amounts to little more than a glorified traffic cop, he is briefly roused from his sad sack stupor by the accidental shooting death of a powerful union boss--one of the town's "summer people." Wade suspects that the union man, who allegedly died during a hunting accident, may have been murdered. Complicating the situation is the fact that Wade's best friend Jack (Jim True) is the only witness and, therefore, the prime suspect.

While Wade tries in his own stumbling way to winnow out the truth of this mysterious death, his personal life is slowly crumbling around him. Watching his family fall apart, Wade is haunted by visions of his childhood growing up with a horribly abusive father (James Coburn). Glen Whitehouse, still alive and kicking in his booze-soaked 80s, continues to make life hell for his son. This father-son dynamic soon becomes the central issue in Affliction.

Banks' novel pondered the chain of domestic violence as it passes from father to son. Schrader's film takes it a step further, speculating on an entire environment of hopelessness (from Wade's childhood to his dead-end hometown to his directionless pals) which makes Wade's fate seem almost inevitable. As Wade, Nolte digs into one of his most complex characters and emerges with a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination. Coburn, acting well against type as the vitriolic monster of a pop, lands himself a Best Supporting Actor nod as well.

Some of Schrader's best works have been literary adaptations, and Affliction is certainly among the best. Thanks in large part to some narration by Willem Dafoe--who shows up eventually as Wade's younger, wiser brother--Affliction retains an air of intelligence and a depth of character which can only be described as "literary." Schrader has always mused on the abusive use of violence (particularly in his collaborations with Martin Scorsese), and Banks' novel provides him plenty of grist for the mill.

Those expecting Affliction to slide easily into a genre will find themselves at a loss. Schrader's film travels a long, dark path. While the alleged crime which sparked this whole story slips further and further into the background, it becomes a thriller of an entirely different sort. Murders, Mob dealings and puzzling criminal investigations--these are the stuff of Hollywood movies. As a hero, Wade Whitehouse is too weighted down in his own psychic damage to fit into some standard Hollywood crime thriller--he's, instead, forced to confront a set of much more personal villains. In this harsh emotional environment, a simple murder for profit would be almost a comfort.


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