One of more critically acclaimed films of the past five years, Paul Schrader’s Affliction, like The Sweet Hereafter (also adapted from a Russell Banks novel), is a mixed—and often gaseous—bag. Climate here is the mirror image of the characters’ emotional nightmares. Indeed, it’s almost if the film’s frosty snowscapes actively add to Wade Whitehouse’s (Nick Nolte) pain. A victim of physical abuse at the hands of his father Glen (James Coburn), Wade chose to stew in the tragic, Greek-like atmosphere of his hometown while his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) ran off to ostensibly greener pastures. So much happens during the film’s finale that it all borders on the absurd, begging for a tamer denouement. Wade’s girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek) abandons him without putting up a fight, and though her soft-spoken disposition suggests a woman unwilling to be a punching bag, the character feels like a cipher. Margie, mistreated and goosed by Glen, shivers with like-father-like-son angst when she, in one of the film’s less subtle moments, notices that Wade and Glen drink liquor in the same ritualistic fashion. Coburn’s take on the abusive father borders on camp but Affliction’s worst offense is Dafoe’s black sheep, an emotional refugee who returns to town and opens old wounds. (The film’s reliance on Dafoe’s voiceover feels unmerited, off-putting even, given the character’s underwritten presence.) Brigid Tierney, playing Wade’s daughter, is the epitome of shrill—an effective performance in all the wrong ways (you may just route for Wade to hit her). Overwrought metaphors abound (a tooth aches to be pulled), yet Affliction is, nonetheless, a film that haunts. At the heart of the film is a pained performance by Nolte, whose Wade suffers fools gladly as he toils through a snowy landscape crumbling beneath his feet.
- Paul Schrader
- Paul Schrader
- Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe
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