It's just after Halloween in "Affliction," but already the northern New Hampshire town where the film takes place feels as if it's in the unforgiving deadlock of deep winter. The snow-covered landscapes transmit that soul-freezing hopelessness that follows the holidays, when there is nothing to look forward to and no relief in sight. "Affliction," which director Paul Schrader adapted from Russell Banks' novel, is about what happens when one of those frozen souls starts to thaw, and finds itself in hell.
Nick Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, the sole cop in his small New Hampshire town. In his 40s, Wade walks with the defeated trudging steps of a man 20 years older. He has a crummy relationship with his ex-wife (an almost unrecognizable Mary Beth Hurt) and an evaporating one with his 10-year-old daughter Jill (Brigid Tierney). No sooner does the girl arrive for one of their precious few visits when she starts whimpering to go home. Wade, in frustration, rises to her bait and manages to show his daughter the worst of himself. Wade looks at his life and sees only disappointments and frustrated hopes. He looks in the mirror and doesn't recognize the man looking back at him. Or doesn't want to. Though he won't admit it, it's the soul of his drunken, abusive father (James Coburn) that he feels overtaking him. The plot of "Affliction" has to do with Wade's conviction that an accidental death that occurs during deer-hunting season is really a murder. The film's real subject is the demon brew of heredity and resentment, what happens to Wade when he feels himself turning into the son-of-a-bitch he grew up despising.
The great pleasure of watching Nolte on-screen has to do with the way he combines the exuberant, sweeping physicality of the great masculine stars like Burt Lancaster with the subtleties of a fine actor. It seems he can put his shambling, he-man bearishness to whatever effect he chooses -- comic, tender or frightening. In "Affliction," Nolte's body seems to be a clock winding down before our eyes, a burden he's dragging around, a repository for each new resentment. Slumped over a mid-morning beer listening to a barfly tell a story about what a bastard Wade's old man is, Nolte seems both seething with indignation and too slugged out to express it. He's approaching the state of permanent anger that his girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek), sees in too many middle-aged men. Each time the light in Wade's eyes rekindles -- lazing in bed with Margie after comfortable, familiar lovemaking, or trying to cajole Jill into enjoying her time with him -- we know it won't be long till they resume their hard, dulled flatness.
Wade isn't so much an inarticulate man as a man trained -- by his genes, by the whole stunted conception of manhood -- not to articulate. When things build up inside him, he has no outlet except anger. And he's got more to let out than short outbursts can accommodate. Nolte has long been one of our best actors, and this is among his best performances.
"Affliction" wouldn't work if we couldn't see a poisonous consonance between Wade and his father, and casting Coburn as Glen Whitehouse ensures that we do. A marvelous actor who has rarely gotten the roles he needs to prove it, Coburn sinks his teeth into this part, biting down to the bone. It takes a complete absence of vanity for a star who has aged as magnificently as Coburn has to appear as deeply unattractive as he does here. In the flashback scenes he's all flinty angles, and that famous oversized jaw is a weapon he uses to lash out in merciless mockery of his wife and sons. In the later scenes, Glen's bile has to make its way past his decay, and Coburn -- padded, making heavy lumbering movements and letting his facial muscles sag -- is like a dying dog that occasionally rouses itself to bite. Watching the insincere sloppiness of his grief over his dead wife give way to his familiar nastiness is like seeing a wizened death's head emerge from a mass of flab. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone play a mean drunk in quite the way Coburn does. There's something fussy, almost prissy in the way he lifts the booze to his lips, as if he expects no pleasure from it. All that's been burned out of him. The only thing left is spiteful compulsion.
It's quietly terrifying to see that same spite take root in Wade. The audience is put in the same position as Margie, who sees it, too, and watches as all she cares for in Wade is crowded out. In this central role, Spacek exudes welcoming, reassuring sanity. The role and performance were perhaps best described by her co-star Coburn, who recently called her "a snowflake in the midst of hell."
"Affliction" is a harsh experience, but the harshness isn't a matter of punishing the audience or of the director, Schrader, showing off his toughness: That unvarnished harshness is the very essence of the material. Schrader may not be a natural filmmaker -- he's prone to intellectualizing his films and then working them through according to plan -- but he has become a very fine craftsman. And part of the reason that "Affliction" is so uncommonly powerful might be that, while we recognize Schrader's intelligence at work, we aren't prepared for what else he brings to the film.
"Affliction" is the first of Schrader's films to come together emotionally as well as intellectually. And it does so with such understatement that I was unprepared for the quiet wallop of the finish. Even in the movie's most violent moments, Schrader doesn't push a thing. His screenplay does a superb job of whittling down the novel, selecting from it the precise, telling details of small-town life. Paul Sarossy's photography is harder-edged than his work in Atom Egoyan's film of Banks' "The Sweet Hereafter." Both the people and the town seem totally unprotected from the environment.
There are small flaws. The details that lead Wade to suspect murder could be clearer. And the role of Wade's younger, college professor brother (the one telling the story and, in the novel, Banks' stand-in) isn't just underdeveloped -- Willem Dafoe doesn't suggest a connection with Nolte, not even the broken connection of siblings who have taken different paths. Schrader may not be aware just how good a job he's done. Dafoe's closing narrative monologue explicates the movie's themes unnecessarily: The becalmed inferno of Schrader's final images has taken care of that. When he says, "You cannot understand how a man, a normal man, a man like you and me, could do such a terrible thing," it's Dafoe's character you can't understand. Schrader has made us understand this movie's terrible things in our marrow.