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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Affliction

Starring: Nick Nolte, James Coburn
Director: Paul Scrader
Rated: R
RunTime: 113 Minutes
Release Date: January 1998
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe, Mary Beth Hurt, Jim True, Marian Seldes, Sean McCann, Wayne Robson, Charles Powell

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The production notes for "Affliction" advise us that if a kitten does not have human contact during the first two weeks of its life, it will never EVER respond to human touch. It will become a feral beast. This may sound harsh and inspire disbelief, but as an animal lover I can affirm that the statement is absolutely true. Imagine, then, that the feline is not simply ignored by people but is actually kicked around and thrown out of windows by wanton boys, and perhaps then you can accept this fact of nature. This example may be used to symbolize what happens when a small boy is abused by a drunken father virtually every week of his young life. Not only will the lad likely turn into an alcoholic himself: he will bear the imprint of this misuse throughout his days. Though most people will probably repress the memory and go on to live seemingly normal, if vaguely unhappy lives, Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), the principal character in writer-director Paul Schrader's "Affliction," is unable to curb his rage. Based on a novel by Russell Banks and thematically similar to that author's more appealing short story, "The Sweet Hereafter," "Affliction" cannot sustain its thematic weight. Mr. Schrader is intent on dramatizing not just a textbook case of abnormal psychology but on portraying, Greek-tragic style, the affects of a strongly macho culture on generation after generation of men, propelling the narrative into epic import. This has a legendary impact that could well work on the page but is too ponderous, sluggish, and alien to the virtues of the screen.

The chief flaw in this movie occurs at the very beginning. Wade's brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) delivers an off-screen narration, giving away a key point of the plot. By explaining right off the bat that he will relate the story of a man who gave full vent to his neurotic obsessions and thereby suffered cognitive deterioration, he forgets that the audience wants to believe Wade's interpretation of events, to cheer for him as he moves to root out evil in his town. By giving away the store during the initial minutes, Rolfe has destroyed most of the tension that the story could have developed.

The story takes place in a bleak, snowed-in, economically depressed rural area of northern New Hampshire (actually filmed near Montreal), the sort of rustic "paradise" that people with an ounce of smarts would make tracks from, and pronto. Wade, however, has remained, despite the failure of his two marriages to Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), sustained by odd jobs for businessman-selectman Gordon Lariviere (Holmes Osborne) and a laughable job as a traffic cop with no crimes to pursue. When rich union leader Evan Twombley (Sean McCann) is killed in a hunting accident, Wade suspects foul play, convinced that the man was murdered by his hunting guide and Wade's friend, Jack (Jim True), at the orders of Twombley's son-in-law, Mel Gordon (Steve Adams). Seeing the chance to become a hero and thereby regain the affection of his wife and his nine-year-old daughter Jill (Brigid Tierney), he pursues an investigation, provoking conflicts with his boss and the hostility of the suspected mastermind in murder, Gordon. Though he has gained the devotion of the local waitress Margie (Sissy Spacek), he cannot dispel the memories of his abusive dad, Pop Whitehouse (James Coburn), whom he conjures us in his memories of childhood days and whom he visits as well in the present. Though his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) has successfully escaped to the big city by becoming a professor at Boston University-- determined never to return unless tragedy were to strike his family in Laverne, New Hampshire--Wade cannot break the bonds of his cruel and offensive dad and sets up a self- destructive scenario.

There is much to admire in the performances. Nick Nolte gives one of the finest of his career as a man who successfully covers up his emotional scars, particularly in the affectionate way he relates to his daughter, Jill, whom he has taken for the weekend Halloween festivities. You've got to admire his patience. Jill is the sort of youngster who could try anyone's patience, a disagreeable, insulting, hostile creature who from the moment she arrives at the party insists on being taken home to her mother. One can see, as well, a certain fondness he holds for his girl friend Margie, though he throws hints that he is proposing marriage to her only as a way to help gain custody of his daughter. James Coburn as Wade's dad is precise in his depiction of a man who is anything but politically correct, one who has apparently learned his lessons well at his own father's knee: that women should know their place and sons should show unmitigated respect and devotion toward their dads.

There are few people in this harsh environment to sympathize with. We get the feeling that Schrader, and novelist Banks before him, are eager to get this story to the public as an antidote to feel-good movies like "Pleasantville" and "The Truman Show," which celebrate the virtues of small-town life. This is to the good: an acerbic edge is welcome if only to deconstruct the false homilies we've been brought up to believe. But despite fine performances and ambient music to match the dismal milieu, "Affliction" is too novelistic, dependent on outright narration, too much in the principal character's head, and, thanks to Willem Dafoe's opening narrative which gives away the design, too lacking in suspense.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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