27 December 2000 | Movie-12
One of the year's best films; brilliantly acted and directed. **** (out of four)
AFFLICTION / (1997) **** (out of four)
By Blake French:
Dysfunctional families have always been the subject of motion pictures. Recently, with movies like "American Beauty" and "The Story of Us," Hollywood has portrayed American households as candidates to be on the next TV tabloid talk show. Paul Schrader's dramatic portrayal of a troubled family in "Affliction" is as intense as any suspense thriller released within the past few years. The thought-provoking power of his script, based on the novel by Russell Banks, and the methods he uses to execute the vivid, interpretative character study creates more than just a sense of emotion and empathy, but places the audience in the character's shoes, allowing us to explore a tense atmosphere on our own.
The movie looks into the life of a struggling person named Wade Whitehouse, played with extreme intensity by the descriptive Nick Nolte. He is the lowly sheriff of a small backwoods in New Hampshire. Nothing much happens in Lawford, however, thus Wade is usually restricted to plowing the snowy streets and serving as the local school's crossing guard. His ex-wife, Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), has most custody of their daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), and neither relative enjoys his company. Wade's alcoholic father, Glen (James Coburn in an Oscar worthy performance), who abused him and his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) as children, continues to abuse him emotionlly.
The subtle town of Lawford is turned upside-down when a rich businessman is mysteriously killed while hunting with Wade's friend, Jack Hewitt (Jim True). Finally given something to investigate, Wade takes his job seriously, even when complications arise when his mother dies, his brother comes home from Boston, and his waitress girlfriend (Sissy Spacek) meets Wade's parents and realizes what she gotten herself into.
As Wade's life starts to completely unravel, the filmmakers neglect to leave out any details; from flashback of his fathers abuse to an uncompromising toothache, Wade is developed vividly and clearly. The movie is best when allowing Nick Nolte and James Coburn to come to terms with each other's hatred for each other. The performances are what make this movie much more distinct than similar but lesser films like "The Other Sister" and "The Story of Us," and even better acted than the masterpiece Award winner "American Beauty."
Instead of milking the dysfunctional family material to the maximum, the film also has tender dialogue and heartfelt scenes that exhibit a loving relationship between Wade and his girlfriend. These scenes make even more tragic the production's unsettling conclusion and increase the overall dramatic impact, which is tremendous.
By the end of "Affliction," like in "The Ice Storm," we feel for the main character's losses. Although this film is more conclusive, it is also unmerciful; we receive no happy ending, no satisfying motifs, this movie takes itself seriously and has no pity, regrets, or agreements. For Wade Whitehouse, the climax of the movie represents death, grief and sorrow. For us, we can only stare at the screen and try to comprehend what we have experienced through his eyes.