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Movie Review: Affliction

By Roy Rodenstien

Directed by Paul Schrader

Written by Russell Banks (novel), Paul Schrader

With Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn,Willem Dafoe.

Released in Europe early last year and having opened in the United States a few weeks ago to qualify for the Academy Awards, Affliction arrives to high expectations. Paul Schrader, who wrote the 1976 pop-culture icon Taxi Driver, directs the screen adaptation of a novel by Russell Banks, writer of the highly-regarded The Sweet Hereafter. Affliction stars Nick Nolte as the troubled son of an abusive father, a role that has already won Nolte the New York Film Critics Circle award for best actor.

The movie opens with narration by Rolfe Whitehouse (Willem Dafoe), who sets up the story of how his brother Wade (Nolte) has been permanently erased from their family's consciousness. Wade is first shown warmly, driving through Banks' patented wintry landscape while chatting happily with his daughter, but the comfortable mood is soon dissipated. Within minutes, we understand that Wade is divorced and that his relationships with both his wife and daughter are severely strained. When his wife shows up to take their daughter away, Wade explodes into violence.

The central hour of the movie is a masterful depiction of the walls closing in on Wade. Subtle flashbacks show us his childhood threatened by a domineering drunkard of a father, Glen, played by James Coburn in a stout and harrowing performance. Working a dull jack-of-all-trades job as policeman and school crossing guard, Wade's life is filled by resentment toward his miserly custody arrangement and toward powerful townspeople he thinks may be getting away with murder. He sets about fixing these situations, but it's clear his daughter doesn't want to see more of him, and the murder investigation will probably not work out very well either.

Sissy Spacek plays Margie, a woman who loves Wade but comes too close to his volatility and has a rude awakening. Rolfe, Wade's brother, listens to his troubles on the phone and tries to get Wade to focus on the small problems getting some rest and getting his aching tooth fixed. Wade's tooth is representative of his greater troubles, his deep-rooted emotional affliction; he punches at it to numb the pain, he tries to bury how much it bothers him, but only a dentist or drastic action will take care of the tooth, and it's clear Wade is not a dentist kind of guy.

Schrader takes his time developing the story, and the gentle pace at which the asphyxiating mood of Wade's life rises creates very powerful scenes, such as when we suddenly realize the chilling extent to which Wade increasingly resembles his father, the clearest sign of his doom.

Nevertheless, there are several rough edges. While the character development of Wade and Glen is excellent, almost every other character is a cardboard cutout. The interaction between Wade and his daughter is glaringly wooden, and the murder investigation subplot, while not completely irrelevant, is handled so discontinuously and superficially that it ends up detracting from the main thrust of the film. The main message of the film is so powerful, however, driven by the slow burn of Nolte's extraordinary performance, that it plows right over these weaknesses unabated.

For such a serious movie, there are a few scenes that are very funny, though as often happens actually living them would probably not be much fun. In perhaps the movie's best scene, Wade describes to his brother his tunnel vision, how he goes through the day with no consciousness of himself or his actions until he accidentally catches his reflection in a mirror and wonders with detachment about that physical manifestation he sees. This inability to escape the walls of his own mind is what ultimately prevents Wade from breaking the pattern of violence in his life. With such insights, and a subtle soundtrack and imagery that linger long after the movie is over, Affliction is an imperfect gem of a movie.