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(Modern Classic) Film Review: AFFLICTION (1997)

By Anthony Moretta

Affliction is what happens when a helluva filmmaker works with a helluva cast: cinema layered like a fuckin' Napolean pastry.



Director Paul Schrader - working from his adaptation of Russell Banks' 1989 novel of the same name - delivers dynamite in tiny-town New Hampshire, blowing the lid off this story about Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), son of Hank (James Coburn), father of young Jill (Brigid Tierney), beau of Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), and older brother of Rolfe (Willem Dafoe). Wade's a cop. Drives a beater truck and directs school bus traffic. He's divorced and dating, detached and destructive, drummed up by Hank's boozing lack of care and compassion as a father, filling Wade's childhood abuse in fits of insults and thunderous smacks to the head. And Wade's not much of a dad either. Jill loves him, but doesn't like spending time with him, especially since he can't keep a trick-or-treating promise on Halloween.

The spark is some visiting businessman from Massachusetts shot dead during a hunting trip with Wade's buddy, Jack (Jim True). It's chalked up to accidental self-inflicted incompetence, but Wade sniffs something shadier, despite his boss LaRiviere's (Holmes Osborne) insistence that it be left alone. On edge, Wade snoops and learns a thing or two about some land-development deal that fingers his boss and some other rich folk, and also drives Jack nuts with late-night tailing and passive accusations, all the while making a play for Jill's custody just to spite his ex-wife, Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt). Squeeze into this Wade's heavy drinking, painfully rotting tooth, mother's death, Hank's unchanged heartlessness, job loss, and both Margie and Jill skipping out on his life, and all Wade's left with are imagination and a shitload of snow, everywhere. Basically, nothing.

Few can make bleak and sparse as riveting as Schrader, from the coded beauty of The Yakuza (1974) to the seedy side of morality in Taxi Driver (1976). Affliction is another dust-up of heavy-hitting themes, exploring the give and take of sacrifice, scarred memories and men. Men like Wade Whitehouse. Raised under Hank's brutal thumb, now short-tempered and skating the line. He's all grown up, tough, tortured and tempted to tear Hank apart. To rip the booze from his skin and soul, as Rolfe only watches like he did when they were kids. Wade fights to separate the genetic bond. Not in any meaningful way like being a better father, but instead, by sheer will to destroy the status quo. To up-end the town with sinister murder plots and spike his daughter's home life. But, consequences are a fluid thing. They sneak up on Wade when he's not thinking too straight, trying to conjure a life in which Margie hasn't had enough of him and Jill also likes her dad. There's no scheming conspiracy, no easy custody fight, no way to escape being Hank's son. It's not redemption. It's renunciation.


Nolte plays ballsy and beautifully tormented like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945) and Richard Conte in Thieves' Highway (1949). If you don't believe Wade has hit bottom when you watch Nolte's steady hand and pain-filled face as he yanks the tooth from his head with some Whiskey novocaine, then you're not watching.



Coburn is the cream. Just about seventy when the film was made, his Grinchy grin and eyes born of steel and wire, pressed into those stacked cheeks, carry the wear of movie mileage and menacing talent. Hank is garbage. A curmudgeon incapable of empathy, swapping the bottle for parental love. He's a relic of the absurd, when misery and misanthropy formed men. He calls his kids a bunch of "Jesus freaks and candy-asses." In his most tender moment, Hank says to Wade, "you're a goddamn piece of my fuckin' heart." Coburn delivers the line like a conniving, heartbroken mother. Just Awesome. There's no denying the vulgarity of Hank's being. Wade even backs up a step when his elderly pop approaches, claiming that Wade's mom is asleep upstairs in their freezing house, only to find his mom lying dead cold in bed, hypothermia doing her in. Coburn's measured tongue and body language make the scene all the more weird and morbid, as if Hank expected she'd die given the lack of heat. The obscenity of it all is that her death was avoidable if Hank only cared long enough to stop drinking and fix the furnace.

Paul Schrader on the right.
This is elegance executed against a dance of danger, darkness and dismay. Heightened by Michael Brook's haunting score, sometimes sounding like a phone off the hook in hell, and Paul Sarossy's amazingly crafted cinematography, casting a deathly pale on an idyllic autumnal winter. And Schrader is the film-runner, bringing the gorgeous, the grating, and the goods.

 

Anthony Moretta is from Brooklyn, NY and writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter Online and will be featured in the upcoming anthology, Unfashioned Creatures. His independent film project, Travels, is currently in post-production and he's also developing an original comic book series.