Affliction (1998): Paul Schrader Strongest Film in Decade, with Towering Performances from Nick Nolte and James Coburn

“Affliction,” Paul Schrader’s strongest film in a long time is a powerful reverie about family curse, or more specifically, how incontrollable rage and violent behavior pass from fathers to sons.

Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is a broken man, both literally and metaphorically, who’s losing any sense of control over his life. For a while he was able to hold it together. Now he’s lost his wife Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt, Schrader’s real wife), who has divorced him for the second time. He rarely sees his daughter, who obviously prefers her mother and her well-off stepfather; she’s scared of him.

Wade works as a police officer in the gray dead town of Lawford, New Hampshire. To supplement his income, he runs errands for a small-time businessman named Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne).

It’s not that he lacks awareness of his problems, deficiencies, and misery. Wade senses his injury, the indignity of his existence. He wants to strike back, to sue for custody of his daughter. But he can’t afford to fix his car, nor for that matter, to have a rotten tooth pulled out by dentist.

A hunting accident, in which a wealthy Boston union boss dies in the woods near Lawford, spins Wade into suspicion that Jack murdered him as part of a conspiracy. Jack (Jim True) was the rich man’s guide but he’s also Wade’s friend. Though he claims he didn’t see the accident or touch the body, Jack shows blood on his jacket. Wade imagines

To gain custody of his daughter he must straighten out his messy existence, to which goal he proposes to his girlfriend Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek) and takes her out to meet his parents at their ramshackle farmhouse, the site of some horrible primal scenes.

Wade’s father, Glen (James Coburn), is a drunken brute. In flashbacks, we see young Glen as a dark-haired tyrant, mocking and torturing his wife and young sons. Wade has never recovered from his traumatic childhood and even as a mature man he’s petrified of him.

In one of the film’s scariest scenes, Wade discovers his mother dead, upstairs in bed in the frigid house. Glen has neglected to fix the furnace. Feeling responsible for the old drunk, Wade and Margie move in to care for Glen to some horrific and inevitably disastrous results.

Based on Russell Banks’ most lacerating novel, “Affliction” is a truly horrifying movie. I highly recommend to you watch this film as a companion piece to Atom Egoyan’s rendition of Banks’ novel “The Sweet After,” which is equally gripping and exceptional but directed in a different style, even though both were photographed by Paul Sarossy.

The film has some problems, such as the underwritten part of Wade’s brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), who remains an enigma due to schematic construction. And, as always, Schrader the writer and director is more confident and comfortable with his male than females; both Sissy Spacek and Mary Beth Hurt are underutilized.

Nonetheless, it’s been years since Schrader, known for his detached clinical mode of direction, has made such an assured and coherent work that’s also deeply felt and emotionally gripping. “Affliction” is touching and exhausting, dark and bleak meditation about midlife regrets and rage. It’s hard to think of another film that shows so powerfully a man gripping with the same demons of drink and meanness that undo his father, and how violence passes almost inevitably from one generation to the next.

Both Nick Nolte and James Coburn were nominated for Oscar Awards, and Coburn won the Supporting one, after years of doing mostly action-adventures. That Nolte, who gives a towering performance as the perpetually tortured Wade, lost the Best Actor Oscar to Italian Roberto Benigni, for “Life Is Beautiful,” is one of the Academy’s biggest scandals in recent memory.

Cast

Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte)
Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek)
Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn)
Rolfe Whitehouse (Willem Dafoe)
Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt)

Credits

Running Time: 113 minutes

Company: Largo Entertainment
Director: Paul Schrader
Producers:Nick Nolte, Barr Porter, Linda Reisman
Screenplay: Paul Schrader, based on Russel Banks’ novel
Camera: Paul Sarossy
Editing: Jay Rabinowitz
Costume: Francois Laplante
Music: Michael Brook
Production Design: Anne Pritchard