Affliction

Director Paul Schrader’s latest film is painted against a snow white backdrop, like one of those empty canvases with only a dot on it that hang in a museum. The bleak background helps put the emphasis on the dot, magnifying it to the point of distraction.


That’s what Schrader has done in adapting Russell Banks novel for the screen. Set during a cold, frigid winter in New Hampshire, “Affliction” ignites the screen with powerful performances and a lit fuse of a screenplay that never lets up.

The brilliance of “Affliction” is that even though you know it’s not going to be a pleasant trip, you never know where the film is headed. What I appreciated most about the film was that it reminded me just how good Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek really are.

While neither has been absent from films, it’s been a while since both of them have found roles as rich and meaningful as in “Affliction.” Nolte is outstanding as Wade Whitehouse, the local law of a rugged New Hampshire town so small if you blink while driving you might miss it. Wade’s duties are basically a joke, so he fills his off hours doing miscellaneous odd jobs for town businessman Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne).

Like that dot on the canvas, the toothache pain in Wade’s mouth becomes magnified with every breath. Wade would see a dentist, but he has other things on his mind. He’s engaged in a custody battle with his ex-wife Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt) while trying to become engaged to local girl Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek).

Their relationship is strained when Wade’s mother dies, leaving his mean-spirited father Glen (James Coburn, so hateful) in need of a caretaker. Margie agrees to help out, and even moves in with Wade. Just when Wade begins to think that his life is back on track, something unexpected happens.

A visiting hunter accidentally shoots himself. Hunting accidents happens all the time, yet the more Wade learns about the victim and the circumstances, he suspects something more sinister. Anxious to tackle a real investigation, Wade becomes obsessed with the case.

He begins to doubt his best friend Jack (Jim True), the guide who took the man hunting. With the help of his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), a teacher in New York, Wade begins to piece together a conspiracy of lies, deceit and murder. The more he digs, the more Wade becomes convinced that he’s uncovered a major conspiracy.

Schrader’s screenplay is a great slow burn, building in intensity until it’s almost too painful to take. In a small town where everyone supposedly knows everyone else’s business, Schrader has created mystery and intrigue. His screenplay fills in just enough of the puzzle without completing it.

That leaves room for insecurity, a trait common in all of the characters. Wade feels inadequate that he’s never been able to stand up to his abusive father, and that this inadequacy will affect his relationship with Margie. Margie is insecure because she sees her life going nowhere, an insight driven home by Wade’s father Glen.

You really feel for Margie, because out of all of the characters in the film, she seems less afflicted than the others.

Schrader has always been at his best writing and directing movies dealing with characters who are internally conflicted. Wade could solve all of his problems by just packing up and moving somewhere else. Yet he feels destined to stay. He’s still a small fish in a small pond, but it’s a familiar pond.

That’s why his pursuit of the truth seems awkward. You’re never sure if he’s doing it because he’s the law, or because he wants to be a big fish.

Nolte is so perfect as Wade that through him we understand his every motivation. He wants to be a good father to his daughter (Brigid Tierney), but is so angry with life that he can’t enjoy her company. He also has a desire to be a better son to his father now that his mother is gone, but his father makes it impossible to get close. James Coburn excels as the alcoholic, abusive father who sees love as a weakness.

Spacek shines as a woman who understands her limitations and yet dreams of something better. There’s both love and longing in her eyes. Her performance isn’t heartbreaking but heartfelt.

I’ve always been an admirer of Schrader’s films, both as a writer and director. His characters are always interesting, if not tragic. Schrader’s screenplay skillfully works in themes like paranoia, distrust and religion, staples of his previous work like “Touch,” “Light Sleeper,” and “The Comfort of Strangers.”

Like Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Affliction” deals with a small town’s reaction to a horrible tragedy. Both stories take place against a snow bleached canvas, allowing even the smallest personal detail to stand out.

Cinematographer Paul Sarossy, who performed similar duties on “The Sweet Hereafter,” captures this canvas with striking detail and clarity. Sarossy manages to make this vacant canvas seem claustrophobic. The production design by Anne Pritchard completes the illusion, turning Montreal into a little slice of New Hampshire.

“Affliction” is one of the best performance films I have seen this year, or last. It’s filled with interesting little insights and asides that make it feel and sound truthful. Schrader’s direction is fearless, as are the performances. You feel like you’re in the midst of greatness.

“Affliction” is also deservedly one of the best films of 1998, but arrived so late that it didn’t make my list. Is it too late to make an addition?

DISSECTING A LIFE-THREATENING “AFFLICTION”

AFFLICTION

Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe, Mary Beth Hurt in a film directed by Paul Schrader. Rated R. 115 Min.

LARSEN RATING: $8



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