Affliction (United States, 1998)
Writer/director Paul Schrader has always been fascinated by the line between sanity and madness, and what it takes to push a man over the edge. This theme stands out in two of Schrader's best known scripts, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, both of which were forcefully brought to the screen by director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert DeNiro. Now, some 20 years later, Schrader has returned to similar emotional territory. The vehicle is Affliction, an adaptation of a book by acclaimed novelist Russell Banks (who wrote the source material for Atom Egoyan's superlative The Sweet Hereafter). This time, Schrader is behind the camera and the subject of his intense scrutiny, Wade Whitehouse, is portrayed by Nick Nolte.
Affliction opens with a brief voiceover narrative (a technique that, thankfully, Schrader relies on sparingly). We are solemnly informed that "This is the story of my older brother's strange criminal behavior..." The voice belongs to Willem Dafoe, but it will be nearly an hour before he makes his first physical appearance as Nolte's younger brother, Rolfe. While Dafoe fills us in on a few salient background details, the camera pans over the quiet snowscapes of a small New Hampshire town. It's only October 31, but it could easily be the middle of the winter. Then we see Wade for the first time. Accompanied by his daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), he is racing to make it to a Halloween party on time. The evening ends unfortunately, with an unhappy Jill going home with her mother, Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), Wade's ex-wife, and with Wade vowing to get a lawyer to re-structure his custody arrangement.
Wade sees the world a little differently from everyone else. Although it's plain to his friends and neighbors that no judge will take Jill away from her mother, Wade believes it's a certainty. Likewise, when his best friend, Jack Hewitt (Jim True), accompanies a man on a hunting expedition, and the man accidentally shoots and kills himself, Wade begins to suspect a conspiracy, despite a lack of evidence. Unwilling to accept Jack's story of a simple, tragic mishap, Wade wonders about mob involvement, cover-ups, and hit men. Because Schrader has chosen to present the movie from Wade's insular point-of-view, we're never sure what's feasible and what's the product of his imagination. (For those who like closure, all is eventually revealed.) Along the way, by means of flashbacks, we learn the source of Wade's emotional instability. As a child, he was brutalized by an unloving father (James Coburn). The experience left profound scars, and old wounds are re-opened every time he visits his parents, who still live in the area. Fortunately for Wade, there is one stablizing influence in his life - Maggie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), a local waitress who genuinely cares for him and is willing to sacrifice her personal comfort to ensure that he has a chance at happiness.
All of these elements are woven together in a tapestry that is part drama, part mystery, and part psychological exploration of a compelling character. The glue that holds everything together, and the driving reason to see Affliction, is Nick Nolte. Nolte has always been regarded as a good actor, but, during his long and successful career, rarely has he poured himself into a part the way he does here. His portrayal of Wade is riveting. With his eyes, his voice, and his every body movement, he forces us to understand what it means to live in Wade's tortured skin. On an intellectual level, we realize that Wade is headed for a meltdown, but that doesn't lessen the connection between the character and the audience - a connection that Nolte is instrumental in forming. By the time the end credits roll, we know Wade inside out. We understand the forces that drive him, and recognize the inevitability of what transpires. In fact, the way Schrader chooses to present it, Wade's "criminal behavior" is almost an epilogue. Affliction is not about the crimes; it's about what leads up to them. There's more than a little Travis Bickle in Wade, and it's not hard to understand what drew the writer of Taxi Driver to this character.
While the standout performance belongs to Nolte, he is ably supported by James Coburn, Holmes Osborne (as Gordon LaRiviere, Wade's oily boss), and Jim True. Coburn's work in particular is worth noting. He plays the role of the cold father to the hilt, creating a memorable, morally ambiguous villain. Young actress Brigid Tierney plays one of the most realistic children to grace the screen this year. Tierney's performance is entirely unforced, and it's easy to sense Jill's inner conflict as she faces a father she both loves and fears.
Affliction successfully and effectively navigates treacherous and complex psychological territory without ever missing a beat. Although many of the plot details can be found in any dysfunctional family drama, the vividness of Wade's character is what makes this film especially compelling. Presentation is everything, and this is far more powerful than any TV movie of the week about the effects of child abuse. Affliction is for anyone willing to take the journey into the heart and soul of a troubled man on the edge.
Affliction (United States, 1998)
Cast: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Jim True, Holmes Osborne, Willem Dafoe, Mary Beth Hurt, Brigid Tierney
Screenplay: Paul Schrader based on the novel by Russell Banks
Cinematography: Paul Sarossy
Music: Michael Brook
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate