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Things Never Work Out for Wade

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 1999


Affliction Nick Nolte struggles to overcome a dark and violent legacy in "Affliction." (Lions Gate Films)

Paul Schrader
Nick Nolte;
Sissy Spacek;
James Coburn;
Willem Dafoe;
Mary Beth Hurt
Running Time:
1 hour, 54 minutes
Under 17 restricted
Supporting Actor (James Coburn)

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And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father.

That's Joyce, from "Finnegans Wake," a spasm of lyrically incoherent son's melancholy on the tyrant-bozo who haunted him in his dreams. And that's the theme of the powerful, affecting and imperfect "Affliction." In fact, it's almost a plot summary!

Derived from the Russell Banks novel, Paul Schrader's film is the chilly, wintry story of a legacy of violence passed from father to son through the vessel of alcoholism. It's the pain that keeps on hurting. It's the affliction.

Poor Wade Whitehouse. The son of a powerfully violent man, who sometimes beat him sober but more usually beat him drunk while belittling him mercilessly drunk or sober (at least he was consistent), Wade has grown big in body but remains small in mind. It's as though he feels at any moment dad's going to burst in, tell him he's no good and start whacking him in the skull again.

Wade is one of life's losers; you can tell when you first meet him, running late through the blue New England twilight, having forgotten an appointment, arguing with his own daughter, whom he loves desperately but has disappointed for the millionth time. He is not really listening to her, not really listening to anyone. It's like the clock in his head is missing several gears.

Wade, played superbly by Nick Nolte, isn't really a bad man, though he's got a nasty temper. He's not a monster, a brute, a crook or a criminal. Nolte never yields to the temptation to make him a monster or a mythic Angry White Male; instead he gets exactly Wade's utter marginality, his insubstantiality. Even in his own home town (Lawford, N.H., a wide spot on a road nobody ever travels), Wade is nearly irrelevant, a part-time cop and part-time handyman. He'll plow the road, he'll monitor the traffic on school days, he'll give the odd ticket.

What the movie documents so precisely is Wade's dysfunction, a subject rarely confronted in a movie culture that celebrates suave competence above all else. Wade is unsuavely incompetent. He's one of those poor guys for whom things never work out; he's weak in the follow-through department. His attention wanders, he forgets, he's easily distracted and he can't quite figure out why. He doesn't even seem to hate the old man (James Coburn, as Glen Whitehouse, a monster with a broad smile and a sense of rectitude a mile wide, whose titanic rages are recalled in the shabby blur of home-movie-style recollection). We sense that at some deep level, Wade is so destroyed that he can't even bother to counterfeit involvement in the world anymore. He's just going through the motions, numbed out, continually assembling two plus two into either three or five.

Schrader, a famed minimalist, has a gift for evoking the bitterness of small-town life. Most struggle to survive; only one Gordon Lariviere (Holmes Osborne), who owns the well-digging company and serves as a selectman, has much ambition, and he's shrewdly manipulating real estate to build a ski resort. The people up from Boston have all the money, and Wade and so many others struggle in service positions.

The plot is minimal. A wealthy vacationer, a union official, is shot or shoots himself gunning for deer. Wade develops a need to make more out of this case than can be made, perhaps as escape from memories of his father whacking him, his wife complaining about his late payments, his daughter's indifference, his own insignificance. Here's a chance to discover some meaning in life, and possibly he has a brief moment of delusion, seeing himself as a detective, when he's really just the guy who holds up traffic for the school bus.

His quest to "solve" a non-crime leads him more surely toward the incoherence his life has always threatened. He sees conspiracy everywhere even as the people who genuinely care for him – his brother, played by Willem Dafoe, and his lover, played by Sissy Spacek – try to rein him in. But Wade is on the quest of his own self-destruction.

"Affliction" has nothing of the assured craft of Atom Egoyan's version of another Russell Banks novel, "The Sweet Hereafter," but it has a lot more raw power. Its crudity is both its strength and its weakness. It's far from flawless: The narrator is Dafoe, the "literary brother," who unspools his ironies in a faux-intellectual's radio voice but has no part in the plot at all. A brief interlude with the Whitehouse family's third sibling, a sister who's a Jesus freak, comes to nothing and feels out of place.

But like the bitter cold in which it's set, "Affliction" bites hard and true.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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