Paul Schrader's Affliction is the kind of movie that sends the viewer's mind into a flurry of cross-referencing. The snowfields in Fargo (1996), the silently anguished male protagonist of Five Easy Pieces (1970), stories by Richard Ford, and, above all, Atom Egoyan's masterly The Sweet Hereafter (1997), which was derived, like this film, from a novel by Russell Banks.
The story centres on Wade (Nick Nolte), whose life, under its relatively calm, daily surface, is a mess. At the start, he is holding down a job and enjoying intimacies with the compassionate Margie (Sissy Spacek). Slowly, Wade begins to pursue stranger ideas, including a custody battle and a murder investigation. Hardest of all for Wade to cope with is his overbearing, out-of-control father, Glen (James Coburn).
The best part of the film is its first half hour. Here we observe Wade's strained relationships with his daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), his ex-wife, Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), his brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), and a range of local characters. Subtle signs of the emotional unravelling to come for Wade are planted – alongside concrete, physical details (such as his nagging toothache) that will later assume a surprising and shocking prominence.
Like most films by this director, Affliction is ably crafted. Schrader uses a discreet, observational style that gives even the smallest camera movement incredible emphasis and force. Landscapes and built environments are invested with a quiet, ominous significance. Only the voice-over narration (delivered by Dafoe) enters the realm of overstatement.
Schrader (like Scorsese) has always been obsessed with the masculine condition and its attendant modern crises. Thankfully, this time around, he dispenses with the romanticisation of violence that has informed his work from Taxi Driver (1976), which he scripted, to Light Sleeper (1992). He also goes easy on his beloved religious symbolism – despite a misplaced image of Nolte posed as a crucified Christ.
Affliction is an earthbound, naturalistic piece. The physical violence that does occur is, for the most part, slight and casual – a shove, a raised hand – which makes it all the more devastating in its effects. The true subject of the drama is psychological and emotional violence, handed down through generations.
For all its virtues, however, there is something tired and familiar about Affliction. Schrader trots out the old binary opposition of screwed-up men who carry the tragic burden of some original sin on their souls, and noble women who sit meekly in the corner and suffer. (Pointedly, in the film's careful poetic schema, men are associated with fire, women with ice.)
Nolte gives a superb performance, but the aura of fatalism that hangs like a dark cloud over Wade seems, ultimately, an easy evasion on Schrader's part, a cop-out. Rolfe is too thin a character to represent any convincing, alternative model of masculinity. The portrayal of Glen is the weakest link of all. The sight of this old man – drunk, falling over, lamenting the loss of "real men" – is a shallow indictment of that convenient abstraction labelled patriarchy.
© Adrian Martin September 1999