Affliction is a grim and upsetting film. Thanks to a convincingly tortured performance by Oscar-nominee Nick Nolte, it's also engrossing.
Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, a small-town cop. Wade is no Dick Tracy; he can barely direct traffic, much less deal with more serious offenses. His appetite for booze and pot doesn't help. He's so fond of chemical recreation that he runs off with his smoking buddies when he is supposed to be taking care of his daughter.
To be fair, Wade does have an excuse. For all of his bluster, the cop is still haunted by his horrific childhood. His father, Glen (fellow nominee James Coburn), is a violent drunk who hasn't mellowed with age. Glen doesn't use his fists anymore, but he still treats his son cruelly.
Wade does have a couple of opportunities to unload his emotional baggage and make something of his life. He's started a relationship with a local woman (Sissy Spacek) who has the stability he lacks. He's also come across a suspicious shooting death that may not be a hunting accident. Unfortunately, Wade's stubbornness hinders his pursuits.
Nolte makes this litany of gloom strangely involving. Because there are occasional glimmers of hope, one still finds sympathy for a loser like Wade. Nolte also has enough charisma to keep him from being repulsive. One actually roots for him at times even though he's obviously doomed.
If Nolte succeeds by making Wade human, Coburn mesmerizes by doing just the opposite. His Glen is an irredeemable monster. Coburn is so mean that he becomes interesting in a freakish sort of way.
Writer-director Paul Schrader (who penned Taxi Driver and directed Light Sleeper) takes a detached approach to his film, which proves an effective counterpoint to Nolte and Coburn's intensity. The cold, barren landscape foreshadows the fate of all involved. Michael Brook's sparse score and Paul Sarossy's crisp photography set the mood perfectly.
Working from the novel of the same name by Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter), Schrader occasionally stumbles over some of the subplots and minor characters. For example, Willem Dafoe plays Wade's more stable brother and serves as the narrator, but viewers really don't get a close look at him. That issue aside, Schrader does deserve credit for making such a downbeat story engaging. Most of his films deal with self-loathing people like Wade, so he's mastered the art of telling their tales, and with Affliction he's in top form. Rarely has gloom seemed so intoxicating. (R) Rating: 8
Nick Nolte in Affliction.
© 1998 Lion's Gate Films, used by permission.