Affliction (1998)

D: Paul Schrader
S: Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek

Bleak and powerful (if very predictable) drama from writer/director Paul Schrader based on the novel by Russell Banks. Small town cop/handyman Nick Nolte finds himself facing questions about his essential nature when a hunting accident convinces him that a web of conspiracies surround him, especially when his personal life begins to disintegrate at the same time. First his increasingly estranged daughter longs more for the comforts of his ex-wife than himself, then with the death of his mother he is forced into direct contact with his brutish, alcoholic father (James Coburn), which puts a strain on his developing relationship with waitress Sissy Spacek. The combination of events and circumstances eventually drive him over the edge, leading to an inevitable tragic conclusion.

The pleasures here (if they can be called pleasures) are less in the story than in its execution. Despite some introductory and summary voice over material (spoken by Willem DaFoe, who plays Nolte's younger brother) which suggests there is hidden depth to the film, rooted in the idea of storytelling as self-delusional fantasy, it is really a character piece. Nolte is terrific as a man for whom we initially have sympathy and for whose fall we feel genuine regret. Coburn exerts a powerful, growling presence as his father; a frightening vision of things to come which is not missed by Nolte and those who surround him. Though we hope that he will rise above his past and his breeding, we are invited to watch Nolte's descent played with subtle degrees of degradation. It is perfect material for Schrader, of course, who seems much happier with darkness and despair than he has been with the material he has dealt with of late.

It is arguable that the drama does tend towards the obvious however, and its observations about violence are not profoundly affecting in themselves. The trajectory of Nolte's damnation is so predetermined that it sometimes becomes tedious to listen to dialogue presenting character revelation when we need only the pained look on his face to tell us everything we need to know. The murder/mystery plot is ultimately a red herring, or at least a McGuffin, and it is not well integrated into the story, providing a few moments of fantasy to counterbalance the underlying thematic concern with how a person's idea of themselves can never fully override what is inside them, but not much else.

Yet the film is involving and there is an authenticity to the action which makes it effective. The drama is played out against the symbolically snowbound New Hampshire landscape and aided by crisp cinematography. Schrader is strong on atmosphere and his cast respond well to the environment he has set up for them. The story may not always hold your attention, but the visual narrative will, captured in the faces of the cast and the stage on which they perform. It is Nolte's film from beginning to end (though it is briefly stolen by Coburn at times), but there are creditable performances from the supporting cast, including a somewhat under-used Spacek. He holds the screen with edgy discomfort and uses his magnificent, gravelly voice to full effect. His imposing shape and size are deliberately reduced within the frame, showing a man living with difficult and visible restraint who must inevitably explode and take others with him. Counterbalanced by Coburn as the source of all these evils and the use of sets and locations, the film amounts to a powerful physical study of a human darkness.

Affliction is not popular entertainment and will not appeal to everyone. It is not necessarily an essential viewing experience, but it should prove rewarding to fans of the talents involved who know what to expect.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.