Adapted from the novel by Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter,
etc), Affliction is a powerful, dramatic tale that looks at the
disturbing pattern of male violence, and explores how this brutal
legacy is often passed on from father to son.
The pathology of male violence is a theme common to much of
writer/director Paul Schrader's work (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Blue
Collar, etc), but rarely has it been tackled in such uncompromising
and potent style before. Schrader seems to understand these
characters and their motivations, and his sympathetic and insightful
handling results in a compelling and hauntingly poignant character
study, that is both chillingly realistic and deeply disturbing.
Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is the sheriff of Lawford, a
depressed and sleepy New Hampshire hamlet. Reduced to being little
more than a glorified traffic cop, he is increasingly frustrated by
his demeaning role. He holds the job purely at the whim of the town's
corrupt and oily businessman (Homes Osborne). Wade's impending
divorce grows ugly and bitter, the relationship between him and his
daughter grows more strained and distant, and a massive toothache is
causing him pain. Wade turns a hunting accident into a murder
investigation, in an attempt to distract his attention away from the
real causes of his anger and frustration.
Wade's problems lie in his relationship with his father ('60's
action star James Coburn, cast largely against type). For a long
time, the young Wade (played by Nolte's own son Brawley) absorbed the
full force of the brutal punishment dished out by his drunken, abusive
father, to protect his mother and younger siblings. Younger brother
Rolph (Willem Dafoe, who provides the voice over narration) escaped
this brutal environment, but reluctantly returns home briefly
following the death of their mother. The reunion is overshadowed by
the intimidating presence of their father and his violent legacy. The
emotionally crippled Wade sees himself becoming more and more like his
father, and finally takes drastic action to exorcise his personal
demons and find salvation.
Affliction unfolds like a low burning fuse as it works its way
towards the inevitable explosion. Nolte is superb as the put-upon
Wade who is slow to understand the true nature of his affliction. In
one of his best, most heartfelt and moving performances in a long
time, he brings a sense of sympathy and compassion to his complex
In his Oscar winning role, Coburn perfectly nails the abusive,
domineering, contemptuous and unforgiving father, who bemoans the loss
of real, hard men in a society growing soft. He is a monstrous
figure, but somehow Coburn gives the character a surprisingly human
dimension and depth. Sissy Spacek makes the most of her smaller role
as Wade's waitress girlfriend, who finally decides to leave this
volatile relationship before tragedy strikes.
Affliction explores many themes common to Banks' work -
dysfunctional families, psychologically damaged men, the tense
relationship between fathers and their children, small towns with dark
secrets, difficult moral dilemmas - all set against the coldness of an
unforgiving, snow covered landscape. The harsh, wintry landscape is
almost a character in the story, and somehow adds to the chilling
atmosphere that pervades the film.
Like the recent American History X, Affliction is an important
film dealing with a serious theme, and deserves to be seen. However,
this bleak film has proved difficult for its local distributors, who
clearly had no idea how to market it and were going to release it
straight to video.
Copyright © 2000 Greg King