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A Breathtaking 'Affliction'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 1999

  Movie Critic

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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Nick Nolte's breathtaking, almost feral performance in "Affliction" pulls you into the roiling depths of human suffering. Never has an actor embodied the passing down of violence and bitterness from father to son more powerfully. You can feel the deep-seated, psychic agony in his stricken eyes and his barking voice, as he takes blow after blow from his brutal, small-town life.

If your idea of inner pain is Julia Roberts failing to attract the man of her dreams, you might want to give this one a miss. But for those who would even consider seeing a movie with a title that promises doom and gloom, this is one hell of a movie.

In the New England town of Lawford, the town's sole police officer, Wade Whitehouse (Nolte), jumps like a dog to the commands of others. He's dependent on his ex-wife Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt) and her limited graces for visitation time with his daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney). But his disorganized manner as a father alienates both of them and causes Lillian to reduce Jill's visits. For work, he's under the thumb of businessman and selectman Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne), who gives Wade snow-cleaning or well-drilling work, and engineered the election of Wade as town policeman.

There are more insidious controlling forces from Wade's past. His cantankerous, bilious father Glen (James Coburn), who mistreated Wade as a child, is still alive and spitting. And Wade is more affected than he knows by Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), his soft-natured brother who left the area to escape the family horror, but continues to dispense advice to Wade by telephone.

When Jill – exasperated at her father again – cuts her Halloween visit with him short and telephones her mother to pick her up, Wade decides to sue for custody. Angry and humiliated, he's ripe for an explosion.

"I get to feeling like a whipped dog sometimes," he complains loudly at one point. "One day I'm going to bite back, I swear."

When a fatality occurs during a deer hunt, Wade suspects wrongdoing but antagonizes a lot of people with his inquiries, including LaRiviere and his best friend Jack (Jim True). He proposes to waitress Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), so he can look respectable for the planned custody battle, but their relationship begins to founder as Wade's mood darkens. When he moves in with his alcoholic father, matters reach a boiling point.

Over the years, writer/director Paul Schrader's darkness-of-the-soul approach has had varying degrees of success, from "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," at the better end, to "Light Sleeper," which was full of great elements, but flawed. But Schrader's method – born of a Calvinistic upbringing and a passion for "transcendental" cinema – has always aimed for something deeper and disturbing.

"Affliction," clearly one of his better films, plunges convincingly into the inexplicable, the elusive and the destructive subtext of life. Remarkably close to the spirit of Russell Banks's foreboding novel, it makes you feel the battle of Wade's soul, as he careens between his finer and baser impulses. Is he sinner or saint? You don't know if you're riding the back of a beast going to hell or on the shoulders of a redemptive man headed for moral glory. You're left with the chilling possibility that civilization can do little about man's atavistic inhumanity to his own kin. But with Schrader's deliberate direction, Nolte's and Coburn's Oscar-nominated performances and a story that never releases its grip on you, this is a moviegoing experience to be embraced rather than avoided.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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