starring Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe
screenplay by Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Russell Banks
directed by Paul Schrader
by Bill Chambers
Wade: "I get to feeling like a whipped dog some days, Rolfe. And some night I'm going to bite back."
Rolfe: "Haven't you already done a bit of that?"
Wade: "No, not really. I've growled a little, but I haven't bit."
Why Paul Schrader chose to adapt Russell Banks's disquieting literary novel Affliction is no great mystery: its story follows an arc similar to that of Schrader's best known works, such as his screenplays for Scorsese's Taxi Driver and his own Hardcore. Affliction's Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), like Travis Bickle before him, is a man who fixates on exposing corruption in repression of his own violent past. In Bickle's case, planning the assassination of a governor perhaps defers the pain of Vietnam, from which he was honourably discharged; Wade has been afflicted for years by his father Glen's wickedness.
Wade is a New Hampshire podunk's resident policeman and snowplow operator. His personal life is a shambles: his ex-wife hates him; as in Hardcore, Wade has one child, a daughter (Brigid Tierney), with little apparent love left for him; Wade's boss, Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne), considers him expendable; and his current girlfriend, the humourously named Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), is reluctant to become engaged to this walking cul-de-sac. When Wade sees a chance to play hero by ferreting out the murderous motives behind a hunting accident (in which Evan Twombley (Sean McCann), a union leader about to testify against organized crime bosses, was killed), he takes it.
Wade has a persistant toothache, a physical manifestation of his grief. Bad memories, like his mouthsore, occasionally prevent him from functioning properly. Glen, much to Wade's chagrin, is still alive, and still prone to berating his children and binge-drinking. Wade obsesses over the Twombley case; if he solves it, it might boost his self-esteem as much as his reputation. (Schrader's characters are no stranger to third-party redemption.) The investigation also provides Wade with an outlet for his rage, for familial loyalty prevents him from directing it at the people truly deserving of it.
In that respect, Wade is awfully reminiscent of another Banks antihero (or at least, another movie version of a Banks antihero), The Sweet Hereafter's ambulance-chasing Stephens, who spends weeks seducing a town into believing that a fatal school-bus accident can be avenged to avoid confronting the news that his runaway teenaged daughter has tested positive for HIV. Wade is a more compelling character, cinematically, than Stephens, because Schrader paints a picture of Wade's world before diving into his quixotic crusade. We learn that a night in the life of Wade Whitehouse consists of emotional tugs of war with Jill, some pot-smoking with the locals, copious amounts of booze, a fight with the ex, and perhaps an early-morning phone call to his estranged brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe, also the narrator), a history professor smart enough to have fled the coop at the first opportunity. Wade doesn't have the wherewithal to do the same.
Nolte is such a commanding screen presence that he makes even a common toothache compelling. After a pair of dynamic turns in Cape Fear and The Prince of Tides, the towering actor frittered away his comeback clout on I Love Trouble, Blue Chips, and other forgettable--sometimes downright embarrassing--big movies. His recent Oscar nod for Affliction signals the beginning of a new phase in his career: Nolte is finally embracing his incurably vulnerable side and being recognized for it. Built like Frankenstein's monster, he lurches in scenes with Coburn, revealing a sorrow and hopelessness that gnarl his posture until he seems a foot shorter by the end of the film. He shows us how even the biggest of men are humbled before their parents, and deserves that award come March 21st.
Meanwhile, Coburn, a frequent collaborator of the late, great Sam Peckinpah, delivers his finest performance since Peckinpah's WWII drama Cross of Iron in Affliction. After two decades of jokey cameos in films like The Muppet Movie and Maverick, Coburn reminds us that his palpable charisma can be put to use doing something other than hawking slot machines. Gone are the pearly whites and blow-dried hair--Glen "Pops" Whitehouse is a tyrant, but he lacks that kind of vanity. Coburn's trademark gruffness is abrasive in Affliction and not at all endearing; Schrader strips the icon of his very Coburn-ness.
Unfortunately, Affliction's Super8 flashbacks--nods to Banks's fondness for non-linearity, I suppose--lack sting. I dare say they aren't at all necessary: the blankness in Wade's eyes conjures mental images far more brutal and upsetting than anything a director could manufacture. Thankfully, they're but a small portion of this tapestry of anguish woven by Schrader and Banks (Schrader has quite faithfully adapted Banks's prose, almost but obviously not quite to the exclusion of auteurship). It should be warned that the film offers no tidy resolutions to its plot threads--for some afflictions, the filmmakers daringly speculate, there is no cure. Originally published: February 17, 1999.