Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Affliction

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, February 18, 1999]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

The Whitehouse brothers, Wade (Nick Nolte) and Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) Whitehouse, chat together in their father’s garage about their father Glen (James Coburn), a bitter alcoholic who tormented them as children with a constant barrage of insults, taunts, and outbursts of violence.

“I was a careful child,” confesses Rolfe. “I became a careful adult. At least I was never afflicted by that man’s violence.”

Wade laughs his response: “That’s what you think.”

Paul Schrader’s Affliction, from the novel by Russell Banks, is ostensibly the story of Wade, an unambitious, jocular small town sheriff and odd job man to a small time entrepreneur. But the cold, objective narration of college professor Rolfe, who holds the story at arm’s length with his writerly diction and disconnected voice, refracts the tale through his own perspective. As he puts into words his clinical take on Wade’s affliction, he unwittingly reveals his own.

Stuck in the rural New Hampshire home town that Rolfe escaped, Wade shuffles through menial jobs (crossing guard at the school, driving the road grader during the snows) with a numb resignation until he becomes suspicious of a hunting accident that took the life of a wealthy union organizer. Talking with his brother on the phone he spins out a couple of conspiracy theories, which Rolfe encourages in his own, non-committal way, and Wade is soon obsessed with the case the state police have already closed.

In the meantime their aging mother passes away and Wade moves in to care for his mopey, alcoholic father, foisting his unsuspecting girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek) onto the old man as an unwanted baby-sitter, but soon the men fall back into familiar patterns and the cycle of vicious taunts and emotional humiliation begins all over again. Coburn delivers his best performance in years as the spiteful old man rising back to abusive life with a grin hardened to a mocking, venomous sneer. “I feel like a whipped dog, Rolfe,” Wade confides in his brother. “Someday I’m going to bite back.”

Nick Nolte, whose tragic underuse may finally be at an end with astounding performances in both this and The Thin Red Line, uses his stocky physicality, raspy voice and rough masculinity to explore the tensions of Wade. Nolte peels back the facade of swagger and gruffness to reveal the internalized demons he’s bottled up for years in privileged moments of intimacy: the pain behind the smile, the hardened, faraway looks he quickly covers over with a joke and a laugh. When he looks in the mirror, his face almost recoils in recognition – the legacy of his father is working its way out and it terrifies him.

Paul Schrader, a master of cinematic remove, sheers away the directoral distance of his previous work to draw us into the soul of Wade. His camera hangs back at the edges of the scenes while the soundtrack drones and throbs like an ominous rumble, but through the course of the film he develops uncomfortable intimacy and punctuates the drama with startling close-ups all the more effective for their rarity. It’s like watching the disintegration of a psyche under a microscope as cracks in Wade’s facade erupt into tremors of violence.

Schrader has made his reputation revealing the scarred psyches of American men trying to reconcile the contradictions of masculine fantasy and social reality (see his screenplays to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for prime examples). In Affliction he creates his most poignant and powerful work. As the film comes to its final devastating images Rolfe’s voice chimes in to “interpret” the drama once again, but by now his own affliction has become as apparent as Wade’s. The corrupt love of a violent alcoholic has taken its toll on two lives with wounds that will never heal. For Wade the legacy has erupted in his own uncontrollable violence – as the eldest brother he took the brunt of his father’s fury, and as an adult he never developed the physical or emotional remove of his brother.

But Rolfe’s affliction is equally as harrowing; he’s an adult so careful he’s disconnected himself from his own childhood to the point of editing himself out of his memories of the Whitehouse family crises. “In telling Wade’s story I tell my own,” he remarks in his opening narration, and by the end those words are more true than Rolfe is willing to recognize.