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This is a movie which rewards at many levels. Its characters are fleshed out
human beings capable of good and evil and in the grips of intense suffering,
not the formulaic cardboard creations which populate so many recent
Hollywood productions. The movie's atmosphere and mood are thick and the
bleakness of the New Hampshire winter comes alongside its beauty and
majesty. Paul Schrader achieves here what has eluded the Coen brothers in
Fargo. The photography of Paul Sarossy is of a rare beauty and his
compositions are breathtaking. Think of the scene of the two brothers in the
barn lit by light sneaking in through the slits in the wood exterior, the
beauty of the snow covered New Hampshire chalets, the camera receding from
the barn fire until we get to watch it through a slightly off-center
picture-window from the main house, and finally think of the snow in its
serenity, its menace, its domination.
The two stories are so naturally intertwined that one can spend most of the
time convinced one is watching a thriller, until in the end this thriller
dissolves into the main story which explores the violent undercurrents of
human love and bonding. This whole is as thick and rich as
I am in awe of Nick Nolte's spectacular performance. It is honest, complex and totally convincing. Nolte is ably supported by James Coburn and others. This is moviemaking at its best.
AFFLICTION / (1997) **** (out of four)
By Blake French:
Dysfunctional families have always been the subject of motion pictures. Recently, with movies like "American Beauty" and "The Story of Us," Hollywood has portrayed American households as candidates to be on the next TV tabloid talk show. Paul Schrader's dramatic portrayal of a troubled family in "Affliction" is as intense as any suspense thriller released within the past few years. The thought-provoking power of his script, based on the novel by Russell Banks, and the methods he uses to execute the vivid, interpretative character study creates more than just a sense of emotion and empathy, but places the audience in the character's shoes, allowing us to explore a tense atmosphere on our own.
The movie looks into the life of a struggling person named Wade Whitehouse, played with extreme intensity by the descriptive Nick Nolte. He is the lowly sheriff of a small backwoods in New Hampshire. Nothing much happens in Lawford, however, thus Wade is usually restricted to plowing the snowy streets and serving as the local school's crossing guard. His ex-wife, Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), has most custody of their daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), and neither relative enjoys his company. Wade's alcoholic father, Glen (James Coburn in an Oscar worthy performance), who abused him and his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) as children, continues to abuse him emotionlly.
The subtle town of Lawford is turned upside-down when a rich businessman is mysteriously killed while hunting with Wade's friend, Jack Hewitt (Jim True). Finally given something to investigate, Wade takes his job seriously, even when complications arise when his mother dies, his brother comes home from Boston, and his waitress girlfriend (Sissy Spacek) meets Wade's parents and realizes what she gotten herself into.
As Wade's life starts to completely unravel, the filmmakers neglect to leave out any details; from flashback of his fathers abuse to an uncompromising toothache, Wade is developed vividly and clearly. The movie is best when allowing Nick Nolte and James Coburn to come to terms with each other's hatred for each other. The performances are what make this movie much more distinct than similar but lesser films like "The Other Sister" and "The Story of Us," and even better acted than the masterpiece Award winner "American Beauty."
Instead of milking the dysfunctional family material to the maximum, the film also has tender dialogue and heartfelt scenes that exhibit a loving relationship between Wade and his girlfriend. These scenes make even more tragic the production's unsettling conclusion and increase the overall dramatic impact, which is tremendous.
By the end of "Affliction," like in "The Ice Storm," we feel for the main character's losses. Although this film is more conclusive, it is also unmerciful; we receive no happy ending, no satisfying motifs, this movie takes itself seriously and has no pity, regrets, or agreements. For Wade Whitehouse, the climax of the movie represents death, grief and sorrow. For us, we can only stare at the screen and try to comprehend what we have experienced through his eyes.
Based on a novel by Russell Banks who also wrote "The Sweet
Hereafter", and directed by Paul Schrader of "Raging Bull" and "The
Coast" fame, the winter landscape and cold bleakness of the town sets
tone for this exploration of the dark legacy of what it is to be a
Nick Nolte stars in this dark story of a the lone policeman in a small New Hampshire town investigating a hunting accident. James Coburn is excellent as Nick Nolte's father, a brutal and angry old man who typifies a sick machismo which has in turn afflicted his son. His acting is extraordinary as is Nolte's although their styles are different. Noltle is subtle; his facial expressions are controlled and typical of a man who has learned to hold in emotion. Coburn's face, on the other hand, is more deeply expressive; his eyebrows move, his mouth hardens, his eyes glare.
This is the kind of dark, brooding movie that I like. For a brief few hours I enter its world and get completely absorbed in the characters in the way I did with "A thousand Acres" or "The Horse Whisperers". Like these films, there are no easy answers and the conclusion does not wrap up in a neat little Hollywood package that is soon forgotten.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have watched this movie several times and reflected on the negative
criticisms of others on this message board. And while I agree that some
of the performances were flawed and that an evening spent watching it
can hardly be called entertainment, still, in terms of its writer's
objectives, which are summed up in Rolf's concluding VO (which I quote
below), in my opinion Affliction it is a superb accomplishment.
I write thusly because I as a child -- as I must suppose the writer was also -- was beaten often and most violently by a totally out-of-control father who himself was the product of his father's violence. Which is not to say that I did not afford ample provocations for sound thrashings (or possibly a more effective form of chastisement, for, as the proverbial fool, I indeed kept returning to my follies), still there are limits. Nevertheless, I have thought often of the effect these beatings must have had in shaping my personality and destiny -- and being now some 85 years of age, I have had a very long post, post graduate course in introspection.
Whatever, the writer's conclusions did indeed resonate with me, and well written they were indeed:
The historical facts are known by everyone -- all of Lawford, all of New Hampshire, some of Massachusetts.
Facts do not make history. Our stories, Wade's and mine, describe the lives of boys and men for thousands of years, boys who were beaten by their fathers, whose capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth and whose best hope, if any, for connection with other human beings lay in an elegiac detachment, as if life were over.
It's how we keep from destroying in turn our own children and terrorizing the women who have the misfortune to love us; how we absent ourselves from the tradition of male violence; how we decline the seduction of revenge.
For what is considered a small, independent film, this movie is packed
brilliant performances by two great actors. James Coburn is the dark,
patriarch of an abusive household, whose abuse and anger are inherited by
his son(Nolte). The story is told by the youngest brother (played mainly
voice-over and a small cameo by Willem Dafoe), and traces the events of a
small town murder investigation that leads to the mental collapse of
cop character. The film weaves us through a buffet of sub-plots and bit
characters (including a nice appearance by Sissy Spacek), which is at
whish-washed. However the tone and style of the film are quite fresh and
Penned and directed by Paul Schrader, who will probably always be known for writing "Taxi Driver", the film is a stylish take of what is most likely a much better novel. The tone is cold and dark, and serves as the perfect backdrop for the anger and isolation of the two "male" characters. In my opinion, the voice-over narration takes away from the feeling the picture leaves, basically serving the purpose to tell us what to feel. The images and performances on the screen do a fine job in dong that on it's own, without re-enforcment. On a whole, the film is powerful and moving, and is a great look into the heart and soul of lives that are truely tortured. I would recommend this film if for no other reason than to see the brilliant performances of James Coburn (Oscar winner) and Nick Nolte (Oscar nominee).
This is the best film I've seen for a while. I don't understand all that whining and complaining about the weak plot or how depressing the film was. Well life is depressing at times. And more than tells a story, Affliction draws a beautifully sharp picture of one desperate, troubled but goodhearted man's breakdown. Nolte's acting is awesome and he sets into the role perfectly. I think he should have won the Oscar, although Coburn was great too and deserved his price. With it's snowy scenery and small town murder mystery Affliction shares similarities to Twin Peaks. I also like films that include some kind of a statement towards the world around us, and that's what Affliction does.
This film is a perfect example of how the sins of the father are not only visited upon the son, but are perpetuated by him, and serve to visit and affect others as well. There is one story line here: Wade Whitehouse, town police constable of Lawford, New Hampshire was raised by an abusive alcoholic grouch of a father. He has remained in the town while his siblings have fled. His terrible relationship with his father has infiltrated every relationship that he's had, and acts as the lens through which he sees and judges the world. Because of this, his relationships with different people are all ambivalent: He either respects them and turns to them as a pupil would his master, or he hates them, and violently lashes out at them because they have disappointed him in upholding his preconceived 'high assessments' of them. Wade is very unstable in that he seems to have a drinking problem, an inability to manage his anger, and as a result but also as a constant circuitous reason, a very low moral view of himself. In this elliptical plot, an important crystallizing event is the hunting accident that results in the death of a rich Bostonian with suspected links to organized crime named Evan Twombley, whose son in law--Mel Gordon--is in business with Wade's boss, Gordon LaRiviere (whom Wade both admires and despises). The New Hampshire State Police seem to think this is an open and shut case of accidental death: Twombley goes hunting with Wade's young friend Jack, winds up shooting himself, and that's that. However to Wade, this is not the end of the story. Wade's low assessment of himself, his having to deal with his father more closely after his mother's recent death, his financial destitution and reliance upon Gordon LaRiviere, as well as his failing attempt to have a close relationship with his estranged daughter Jill and ex-wife Lillian causes him in a desperate act of self assertion of his 'authority' to insist that Twombley was in fact murdered, and that all characters that surround him--his boss Gordon, Jack, and Mel--are involved in a sinister plot to not only get away with murder, but to deceive him and make him look foolish. As Wade's fantasy elaborately blooms into a wonderfully baroque and intricate starcaise to psychosis, his relationships with the people of Lawford and particularly with his close friends and family rapidly begin to deteriorate. Watching this occur is like witnessing an avalanche, and exemplifies Kierkegaard's assertion that one does not hit rock bottom in despair, but instead can always sink lower, perhaps infinitely. Needless to say, the film does not end on a happy note, yet I would commend this film to anyone because the plot is intense, the cinematography is excellent, and Schrader's directing is magnificent.
"Affliction" doesn't have an immediate plot. It's mostly a delve into a
man's (Nick Nolte) psyche, a divorced alcoholic man who was abused as a
child by his drunken father (James Coburn). He tries to cope, he tries to
make something of himself by attempting to solve a hunting accident which he
thinks is really a murder. He claims that after this, everyone will
remember him as a hero.
Luckily the audience isn't made to believe Nolte's cause, to us he looks just as mad as he does to the characters around them. This is well done, because it could've been presented as some big twist at the end.
Anyway, the "mystery" element to the film isn't that important. It's mostly about how hard - and almost impossible - it is to prevent an emotionally abused man to make the same mistakes his father made. This idea is presented well, but by the end it just feels so thick and depressing that it's hard to take anything from the film, because you don't want to remember it.
Acting-wise the movie is quite good. Nolte delivers what I think is his best performance here, with a quiet desperation wonderfully put out by his eyes, voice, face, and so on. James Coburn does his usual well, but I have to question just why he won an Oscar for this. Don't get me wrong, he was a terrific actor and his performance in this is great, but he's not in many scenes, and the scenes he is in are mostly just a variation of the same thing: Coburn drunkenly and violently mumbles at his sons and eventually starts to yell and thrash. This is all well and good, but his scenes never go beyond that, except for (maybe) at the end when he spews his own sort of twisted philosophy to Nolte.
Other great performances come from Sissy Spacek as Nolte's increasingly uneasy girlfriend. Also Willem Dafoe as Nolte's brother who is so concerned with being quiet and not problematic that he cant prevent the build-up of violence and abuse in his family. I'd say that this performance is more Oscar worthy than Coburn's.
This is a good movie with a great message, but it doesn't put enough on the table, 7/10.
I have seen this movie in bits and pieces, because it was difficult for
me to watch it all the way through and digest it all at one time.
Paul Schrader's movies can have a dark, unsettling edge to them, and this movie is no exception.
Maybe because I brought personal baggage to the table while watching this, is why this movie gripped me so much. I have alcoholic relatives in my immediate and extended family, and I have seen what their anger and destructive behavior hath wrought.
Nick Nolte and James Coburn's characters made me squirm. Coburn received a best supporting Oscar for his role, and it is well-deserved. His character is a mean, vengeful, hateful alcoholic who inflicts his pain on others and afflicts one of his sons, Wade, played by Nick Nolte.
Very gripping and intense family drama.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Roger Ebert described it well. The effects of abuse are similar to
implanted medication. It continues to seethe inside the victim long
after the original event or implantation. Nick Nolte stars as Wade
Whitehouse, a shell of a man about to lose everything he has and knows,
including his sanity, due just as much to his inability to learn to
function as a person outside of the abusive environment he grew up in
as his overbearing father's alcoholic stupors and redneck machismo.
Nolte's mumbling has been criticized as indecipherable hogwash, but
it's consistent with a person who has lost direction, confidence in
himself, and his reason for being long ago. James Coburn plays Glen
Whitehouse, Nolte's father, winning the best supporting actor Oscar for
his mind-blowing portrayal of an abusive father who has simply played
the same record over and over and over for many many years. Coburn's
acting is a rare treat; in that, every action, gesture, nuance, and
word of dialog coming out of his mouth makes up a portrait of abuse
hanging in an imaginary gallery of contempt. Ironically, Wade and Glen
share the name "Whitehouse", which of course symbolizes purity,
goodness, and an idyllic existence all rolled into one but in reality
is everything but that.
Nolte's character is a small town sheriff with nothing much to do except plow snow and double as a school crossing guard until a hunting accident occurs and uncovers a possible financial conspiracy. Meanwhile, Nolte must deal with fighting his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) for custody of his daughter who has either been programmed by Hurt against Nolte or has other reasons for disliking him. Every aspect of and social interaction in Nolte's life reduces him to nothingness, whether he tries to buy his daughter a hamburger, plead with his ex-wife (Hurt), give a person a ticket for a moving violation, interact with his best friend or his boss, or has cross words with his father (Coburn). There is not the slightest hint of success in Nolte's past, present, or future, except for the possibility of his current relationship with his new waitress girlfriend played by Sissy Spacek. Watching Nolte's life unfold layer by layer, it's no surprise to viewers when Spacek bails on Nolte as well.
Director Paul Schrader wrote the script based on the novel by Russell Banks, and as in every good Schrader film, the acting and the dialog are outstanding. There is never a false note or Hollywood moment. Willem Dafoe, who previously starred in Schrader's earlier best effort Light Sleeper, plays Nolte's younger brother Rolfe who distanced himself emotionally and physically from this quagmire of a family years ago. So much so that Dafoe's ill-advised opinion regarding the hunting accident serves as the catalyst leading to a sequence of events, culminating in Nolte's Pyrrhic victory at the end. It's clear Dafoe's character did not know just how deep or how long Nolte's abuse was festering inside when Dafoe says "at least I was never afflicted by that man's (Coburn) violence". Nolte's character replies with "that's what you think" with a laugh and a tone of voice that makes it clear Wade Whitehouse has never been so sure of anything else ever before.
Schrader sets the film in New Hampshire (although it was filmed in Quebec) during a snowy winter and features several shots of bleak landscapes and dimly lit night scenes, the perfect complements to a script depicting one man's small world of despair and desolation closing in and trapping him like an unexpected winter storm. The script's dialog is balanced with fantastic scenes during which the characters reveal much by doing only a little at times. The flashback scenes showing Coburn interacting with his son(s) are like home movies in the Bizarro world; Nolte recalling a family life and memories not worth the effort but always there nevertheless. Sissy Spacek, as Nolte's waitress girlfriend, has a scene at Coburn's house with Nolte present, and she rolls up and tightens her hands in her face, realizing immediately what Nolte took a lifetime to do, if even then. Nolte's toothache throughout the film and how he ultimately chooses to deal with it serves as a metaphor for Schrader's exposure of Nolte's festering rage and his inability to appropriately express anger. He turns to violence, just as his father (Coburn) did, to assert himself, combat his feelings of inadequacy, and to solve his problems. Abuse and violence begets abuse and violence.
The film does not necessarily lead to any great redemption, resolution, or revelation. Instead, it builds quietly and slowly telling a story that many viewers are probably familiar with themselves, whether they share the similarity of alcoholic loved ones, a lack of success in their work or personal lives, or just shattered lives. It tells a story of how a man regresses from using his wits to his primitive instincts in order to survive emotionally. It's an interpersonal tragedy, and viewers with unflinching sunny dispositions may not identify with it at all. Viewers have complained about the film being too depressing, pointless, and a waste of their time, so liking the film a lot may be a matter of taste and tolerance, or it may just be that some viewers are unable to accept films without a happy or satisfying ending before the fadeout. ***1/2 of 4 stars.
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