Screenplay : Paul Schrader (based on the novel by Russell Banks)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Nick Nolte (Wade Whitehouse), Sissy Spacek (Margie Fogg), James Coburn (Glen Whitehouse), Willem Dafoe (Rolfe Whitehouse), Brigid Tierney (Jill), Holmes Osborne (Gordon LaRiviere), Jim True (Jack Hewitt), Tim Post (Chick Ward), Chris Heyerdahl (Frankie Lacoy), Marian Seldes (Alma Pittman), Janine Theriault (Hettie), Mary Beth Hurt (Lillian), Paul Stewart (Horner)
Paul Schrader's "Affliction" is a powerful, bleak family drama about a son's tragic inability to not become his father. Set in the bitter cold of the wintry deer hunting season in Lawford, New Hampshire, "Affliction" is filled with harsh themes of generational violence, the male dominance over women, the businessman's dominance over the blue collar worker, alcoholism, and child abuse. As a writer and director, Schrader, who has always looked to the darker corners of the American experience (see, for instance, "Taxi Driver," "Hardcore," and "American Gigolo"), has picked perhaps the darkest corner of all by showing how the father's violence becomes the son's, thus guaranteeing an endless cycle of bloodshed and misery.
Nick Nolte stars as Wade Whitehouse, a divorced father who works part-time as the local police officer and part-time as an odd-job man, plowing roads and digging wells. He was born and raised in Lawford, where he seems destined in live out his life. His ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) and their pre-teen daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), have moved away. Wade sees his daughter on weekends and holidays, but there is rift growing between them. As Wade is a stranger to his father, so Jill is becoming to him.
Wade's father, Glen (James Coburn), is a mean, drunken lout of a man who is first seen only in flashbacks. The flashbacks are shot in grainy, washed-out eight-millimeter footage (like a twisted version of family home movies), and the camera is shaky and jerky, which gives the sense of constant unease and impending violence. Glen was cruel and abusive to his wife and constantly berated his sons for not being "men." When we finally see Glen in the present tense, it is no surprise that, in his old age, he has become meaner, drunker, and more bitter, which, when combined with his aging frailty, makes him not only cruel but pathetic.
"Affliction" is narrated by Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), Wade's younger brother who has become a professor at Boston University. Rolfe tells us from the start that this is a story about Wade's descent into criminal behavior, so we know it will most likely not have a happy ending. Rolfe admits that he may have been involved in this descent, because when he comes to visit Wade after their mother dies, he encourages Wade's increasingly paranoid conspiracy theory about one of his co-workers, who he thinks was involved in a murder disguised as a hunting accident. But, even so, it is painfully obvious that Wade, with or without Rolfe's involvement, is destined—condemned—to fall down the long descent, the bottom of which is populated by men like his father.
When Glen tells Wade late in the film, "You're a piece of my own heart," he should have said, "You're a piece of my own liver," since not only do they share a reliance on alcohol, but liver is the part of the body where bile is produced. Glen is a man filled with bile, and so is Wade. The movie suggests that part of it is due to the abuse Wade received at the hands of his father, but it also suggests that perhaps there is something genetic in the destiny. Glen tells his son, "You're my blood," and that blood boils and seethes and is in constant need of someone soothing and rational to calm it. Wade's girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek), like Wade's mother, tries to calm the demons, but she is eventually forced to leave. This is, perhaps, the best thing that happens in the film, because at least Margie will have a chance to lead a decent life unlike Wade's mother, who freezes to death, alone and uncared for, while Glen sits drunkenly in the living room.
Schrader teases the audience with the mystery/conspiracy subplot, making a sly suggestion that perhaps there is something to be discovered, and if Wade uncovers a conspiracy and rids the town of its criminal demons, perhaps it will be his own redemption, a way to rid himself of his father's demons. But, as Rolfe's voice-over told us from the beginning, this story is not to have a happy ending.
Schrader, adapting the novel by Russell Banks (who also wrote "The Sweet Hereafter"), draws fully formed characters who are natural in their human progressions. The film is aided by strong central performances by Nolte as the damned son, Coburn as the vicious father, and Spacek as the patient woman who eventually realizes there is nothing she can do to stop the destruction.
Schrader probably could have done without most of the voice-over narration—perhaps all of it, since it spells out in plain, thus cumbersome, language what is already meaningfully apparent to the astute viewer. But, even in its weakest moments, "Affliction" is still a powerful portrait of human pain and family destruction. It ends with a fire that is meant to cleanse, but is, in fact, symbolic of the final step Wade takes into his father's hell. That it ends with the same kind of grainy, eight-millimeter photography that characterized his father's violence is indicative of the fact that the vicious circle from father to son is complete.
©1999 James Kendrick