Soul of the Matter

Beautifully acted but grim as a funeral, Affliction is heavy on soul-searching and stingy on hope.

In the archetypal dead-end town of Lawford, New Hampshire, cold-eyed men looking for trouble prowl the streets in four-by-fours with chrome spotlights and loaded gun racks. The gloomy barrooms are not gathering places so much as solitary confinement cells, and the most popular local sport is macho posturing. In wintry Lawford, the future slides inexorably into the past, unlit by the present day.

This is Russell Banks country, and it is Paul Schrader country. It is hard to imagine a more fruitful moviemaking collaboration--especially if you're in the mood for a bone-chilling jolt of emotion--than one linking a serious novelist whose burning subject is violent disturbance in the male psyche and a screenwriter-director who, in films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Hardcore (1979), has examined the torment of outsiders, people who can't seem to get a life. Together, these two minds are dynamite.

Affliction, adapted from Banks's 1989 novel and directed by Schrader, turns on a potential murder mystery: When a wealthy, politically connected weekender dies in the snowy New England woods, suspicion falls on the sour young guide who took him hunting and on the powerful real-estate developer who controls Lawford. But neither Banks nor Schrader is much interested in murder, at least not in the conventional sense. Their real focus is the beleaguered town cop, Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), a miserably divorced father who stirs himself to action in the face of the supposed crime. If he solves it, he believes, he will gain public respect, reclaim his shattered self-esteem, and, perhaps, begin to cast out the demons that have afflicted him all his life--not least his drunken bully of a father.

"Ya know," Wade laments, "I get to feelin' like a whipped dog some days." Always at his best as an unsettled Everyman, the stolid, square-jawed Nolte seems exactly the right actor to play Wade. An explosive bundle of unresolved childhood traumas, Wade can't find the key to a normal, middle-class life, and under pressure he can barely restrain his animal spirit with reason. His preteen daughter (Brigid Tierney) has come to distrust his clumsy efforts at control, and there's no way he's going to win a traumatic custody battle. His sometime girlfriend, Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), is wary of his rages. The town big shot, Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne), irritably sends Wade off, like a schoolboy, to plow streets and play crossing guard. Wade is also suffering from a toothache, which suggests all his other troubles.

Banks's longtime concern with the burden of pain--or sin--that's passed down through families, particularly small-town families harboring nasty secrets, will not go away anytime soon. Last year Canadian director Atom Egoyan mined that vein in his fluent adaptation of another Banks book, The Sweet Hereafter, which examined the effects of a fatal school bus crash on the surviving citizens of a mountain village. In Affliction the crucial accident is one of birth: Even in adulthood, Wade and his younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), now a teacher in Boston, must defend themselves against their monstrous father and the legacy of violence he's pounded into them.

In the person of James Coburn, who gives the performance of a lifetime, the belligerent, alcoholic farmer Glen Whitehouse may be decrepit now, but the power he holds over his damaged sons remains awesome. We see his old cruelties in a series of harrowing flashbacks, but the present's even scarier. Wade and Rolfe are still captives of their father's spirit, like characters in a Greek tragedy, and it would take some transcendent act of will to break his grip. Is Wade capable of liberation? At first look he doesn't seem much of a soldier, Lawford is an unlikely site for a siege, and, as Rolfe points out, Wade has "no perspective to retreat to, even in a crisis." Still . . .

I'd wager plenty that, in absorbing Banks's novel and writing the screenplay for Affliction, Schrader frequently found himself revisited by an earlier invention of his--one Travis Bickle. Like the alienated, ascetic antihero of Taxi Driver, Wade searches in vain for some niche to join, some value to embrace, some escape from the bruising isolation to which he was born. Affliction may unfold on the desolate streets of a freezing town in New Hampshire, but Wade's anomie would just as well play out in the teeming hell of Manhattan, and the act that at last defines him bears a spooky resemblance to Travis Bickle's. Each, in his way, is a decent man transformed by his own terror.

If you've read this far, you know by now that Affliction is not exactly cheery holiday fare. Beautifully acted but grim as a funeral, it's heavy on soul-searching and stingy on hope, as befits a meditation on stubborn machismo, inherited violence, and the dark toll they take. This is anything but pleasant stuff, but it's a must-see for anyone interested in men and women, fathers and sons, and the kind of murder mystery in which the real casualty is the human soul.

Directed and written by Paul Schrader. Based on a novel by Russell Banks. Starring Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek, and Willem Dafoe.

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