movie review by
David Ng



Nick Nolte in Affliction.

Nick Nolte and James Coburn.

Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek.

(©1998 Lions Gate Films. All rights reserved.)

Web site:

Wade Whitehouse is one of the most complicated characters that filmmaker Paul Schrader has ever committed to the screen. This is quite an accomplishment for the creator of such memorable basketcases as Travis Bickle, Patty Hearst, and oddly enough, Jesus Christ. But Schrader out-Schraders himself in Affliction, a film he directed and adapted from the Russell Banks novel. At the epicenter of this film lies Wade Whitehouse, a police officer of a snowy New Hampshire town who repeatedly edges towards insanity, and then pulls back, as if afraid of what he sees. Schrader's film documents Wade's short but convoluted journey from eccentricity to madness.

Wade, like other Schrader protagonists, suffers from a surfeit of negative stimuli. He is divorced, nearly broke, reeling from a nasty toothache, and above all, cold. Everything bothers him. He paces furiously, running his fingers through his hair. He barks at his ex-wife and at his exasperated daughter. Wade is akin to a frayed wire, hissing and sputtering in the icy wind. The fun lies in guessing when and how he'll flare up next.

As a character, Wade remains surprisingly elusive. His emotions dart here and there, like mini-explosions, while his body barely has time to keep up. From moments of paternal calm burst forth torrents of violence, and born from that violence are bizarre plains of tranquility. As Wade, Nick Nolte rarely lands on an emotion long enough to let us digest it. His Wade is skittish -- an emotional itinerant. Instead of creating a character we can get our hands around, Nolte smartly creates a broad panorama of disconnected feelings. In one scene, Wade, a self-professed loving dad, attacks his daughter's stepfather right in front of her. This very lack of emotional unity becomes Wade's defining trait. He's broken and scattered. Nolte, who has fully disappeared into the role, correctly avoids trying to pick up the pieces and simply lets Wade get swept away in his own tangle.

Watching Nolte's performance is like watching a rabid animal tear itself to pieces. The animal, suffering from intolerable dementia, must find some kind of relief. So, in an act of merciful suicide, it claws away at its own stomach until its intestines pour out onto the ground. It's a form of self-destruction that, in a perverse way, is really a form of self-preservation. Like the animal, Wade is afflicted with something unspeakable. And it is inevitable that one day, he will have to destroy himself in an ultimate plea for peace.

One source of Wade's distemper is his elderly father, played deliciously by James Coburn as a putrid, lecherous, fat codger. A thoroughly reprehensible cretin, Mr. Whitehouse Sr. enjoys bellowing from the depths of his drunkenness, beating his miserable wife, and telling his own children to go fuck themselves. Schrader draws his monstrosity with such overt hyperbole that he is really calling into question Wade's sanity.

We first begin to suspect Wade when his younger brother (Willem Dafoe) can't remember a crucial incident from childhood that Wade insists took place. It was during a snowstorm when they were kids. Their father, drunk as usual, forces them out of the house to stack firewood. "One day, boys, you'll thank me for this!" he intones above the howling winds. But the firewood is buried under thick ice, prompting the boys to give up. Angered by what he sees as girlish cowardice, he furiously beats the young Wade. Or did he?

After his mother's death, Wade's father moves in, and with each passing day, becomes more slovenly, more lecherous. He sexually harasses Wade's girlfriend (Sissy Spacek). He even seems to grow taller and fatter with each scene. We are clearly watching through Wade's tainted eyes, but we never know to what degree. Blurring the distinction between cinematic objectivity and subjectivity, Schrader creates long stretches during which reality mingles freely with Wade's mind. As in Taxi Driver, Schrader's protagonist has selective vision. He chooses to see only what fuels his seething hatred.

This is typical Schrader, toying with our eyes and cheerfully abandoning us in the slush of his characters' paranoia. This technique, however, is less effective in Affliction than in his previous efforts mainly because the film has too many distractions. There are multiple subplots, one involving a real estate deal, another concerning a mysterious shooting in the woods, and another about a custody battle with Wade's ex-wife. Schrader has too many threads going at once, and when he ultimately fails to link them all back to Wade, they scatter messily to the winds.

Moreover, none of these digressions feels properly couched within Wade's addled state of mind. They swarm around him but seldom impact him. Schrader's visual approach in these scenes comes off as too real and too conventional, like a bland whodunit. They weigh the film down. Schrader doesn't achieve the hallucinatory quality needed to fully enter into Wade's vortex. There's too much realism in the pudding. As a result, Wade's all-too-sudden descent into insanity is visually divorced from its roots. When Schrader finally ties all of the subplots together with a perfunctory voice-over narration, the film feels curiously stunted.

Perhaps Schrader was not the best possible executor of his own screenplay. One could easily imagine Scorsese or even Atom Egoyan (who adapted another Banks novel, The Sweet Hereafter) striking the right chord between hallucinations and reality. But Schrader still delivers what he does best: the construction of a complex character from the outside in. When he decides to concentrate on Wade, the film pulses with bulldog intensity. The final scene of Affliction involves a murder and a fire. Whether Wade ultimately dies or simply drifts away from the mass destruction doesn't interest Schrader. Wade has finally earned his peace. He has bloodily excised the rotten part of himself, the part that has infected him since childhood. Like the rabid animal that self-destructs, Wade seeks and finds contentment in oblivion.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]