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[whitespace] Affliction Freudian Flaw: Small-town constable Wade (Nick Nolte) cannot endure what he needs to endure in Paul Schrader's 'Affliction.'

Len Irish

Nick Nolte's wounded son bears the 'Affliction' only a father can administer

By Richard von Busack

IN THE NEW FILM Affliction, Nick Nolte's character, Wade Whitehouse--Cain and Abel wrapped up into one--mutters, "I'm a whipped dog, and some day I'm gonna bite back." Nolte's Wade isn't a dog, though; he's more like a bear with an arrow in him. And we know whose name is on the shaft. A friend of mine who was trying to join a men's group was asked in all seriousness by the leader, "What is your core wound?" (He didn't get in. Not the right pathology, apparently. As if any of us had but one wound!) There's no doubt what Wade's core wound is: dominated by his father, his life has been ruined.

The title lets you know that Paul Schrader's film will traffic in nothing but high tragedy. The word "affliction" implies suffering ordained by God. Wade is, in the biblical phrase, fed with the bread of affliction and the water of affliction. None of Schrader's previous afflicted characters--Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (for which Schrader wrote the script), Cinque in Patty Hearst or Yukio Mishima in Mishima--has been subject to such a basic boxing-in.

Nolte (who just received an Oscar nomination for his performance) plays a man of slight responsibilities. He is the town constable of Lawford, in the New Hampshire mountains, a hamlet that's changing from poor-man's burg to rich-man's condo-farm. The job is pro forma; Wade gets about as much respect as Don Knotts' Barney Fife did. His main job is driving a snowplow.

In his free time, Wade blows a little weed, drinks a little beer and carries on an easy affair with a commonsensical, pretty waitress, Margie (Sissy Spacek). Unfortunately, Wade's divorce has left him on bad terms with his wife (Mary Kay Place). His daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), is becoming estranged, giving her father the desperate idea to sue for more custody.

Meanwhile, a corrupt Boston labor leader is shot during a deer hunt. If it's murder, it happened in Wade's jurisdiction. There's a slim chance that the town's arrogant political boss (Holmes Osborne) is involved in the killing. Wade decides that solving the mystery will make him a hero, will straighten out the tangles in his life.

THE FILM is based on a Russell Banks novel, as was Atom Egoyan's 1997 The Sweet Hereafter. Both novels tell of men deliberately blind and how their repression of their own family tragedies keeps them from doing some good in life.

In The Sweet Hereafter, the personal injury lawyer played by Ian Holm seeks to make sense of a small town's loss by means of a lawsuit. Lawyer Holm is convinced there is no such thing as chance, that there is always liability to be found. Yet he can't--or won't--apply that same logical process to the destruction of his own daughter's life. As always in Egoyan's films, what's fascinating is what's left out. You must decide for yourself whether it is fate or fault that has caused Holm's daughter to ruin herself.

In Affliction, the flaw in Nolte's Wade is strictly Freudian, so the puzzle is easily solved. The narration by Wade's brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), makes Wade's fate all too clear for us--he's just like the psychiatrist who pops up at the end of Psycho to explain what we've just seen. Rolfe tells us that Wade had been abused by their drunken Pop (James Coburn). Pop is the reason why Wade cannot not endure what he needs to endure.

It was inspired of director/writer Schrader to cast a man even bigger than Nolte as Wade's tormentor. Before he starred as the superagent Derek Flint, Coburn used to take villain roles--in Charade (1963), for instance, the actor plays a grinning thug menacing Audrey Hepburn.

Coburn's Pop is a big, hoarse drunkard. As we see in flashback, Pop likes to bellow his love for his boys, just before beating them up. He seems as large and domineering as Hermann Kafka, Franz's father. Slit-eyed, gray-skinned, those uncanny teeth bared, the still-virile Coburn bears a strong resemblance to Lt. Ripley's nemesis, the Alien. Coburn's larger-than-life acting (also Oscar-nominated) brings out the almost supernatural qualities of Pop's domination and possession of his son.

The child abuse takes place in half-suggested flashbacks. It was a good idea to downplay these painful moments for two reasons: first (of course), because they're hard to watch, and second, because battered children don't always have a really clear memory of what they've endured. The vagueness of Pop's rampages and the conspiracy of silence between father and son resemble the deals that many children strike with their battering parents. To keep peace, they pretend that nothing terrible has happened.

THE AUTHENTICITY of the small-town setting is one of the best qualities of Affliction. Lawford is a Calvinist town, a place where your character is determined early on, and you'll never change. If you were a stoner in high school, as Wade was, you'll always be thought of as a stoner, even if you wear a badge. The coffee shop/tavern is full of needlers who remind you of your humiliations.

The inside of a farmer's house is cluttered with junk and half-fixed equipment; no clear line exists between the house and the garage. If A Simple Plan had the look of Affliction, I would have believed in it. Even the snow country looks more claustrophobic than in A Simple Plan, increasing the desperation we're meant to feel. At times, the film's snowscapes make you start to think about Kubrick's The Shining.

Schrader doesn't reach for bathos. Dafoe's chilly, even mealy-mouthed, narration cools the story down. But Schrader errs in keeping the story straight as an expressway, without the diversions, the shuffling of the deck, that made the finish of The Sweet Hereafter hit the viewer between the eyes. Rolfe's early prediction of the storm of violence to come at the end obliterates the ways Wade might avoid the fate foretold for him.

This sense of inevitability makes for nagging questions. Why, for instance, does Margie agree to move in with the hateful Pop? It's uncharacteristically foolish of her, especially since she's wise to the old man's nastiness. (The part may be miscast; Spacek looks too smart to make that particular mistake.) Why, for that matter, does Rolfe decide to encourage Wade in his fantasy of being a detective--why does he not realize his own responsibility when the mirthless joke gets so badly out of hand?

Nolte's polar-bear waltz is an embodiment more than a performance--indeed, who really comes out of Nolte's best work thinking about his performance? The word "performance" is weak; it implies component parts: "playfulness," "impersonation," "rehearsal," "improvisation." All of these are something other than what Nolte does at his best.

Nolte manages to convey both physical strength and mental weakness throughout Affliction. Wade, tragically ignorant of his own limitations, is possessed with a desperate, clumsy need for love that frightens his own child. (In one scene, Wade looks like a bear trying to devour its own offspring.)

But there's something missing in Nolte, and it's the same quality missing in the movie. Nolte is more Foreman than Ali--lots of heavy hitting but not much grace. As a comedian, Nolte is a lumberer. He doesn't have the wit that exudes from Marlon Brando, his only rival as a massive physical actor. Brando, 75 years old this year, ripe as Camembert and fat as butter, was last seen in the bizarre but poignant The Island of Dr. Moreau. (Brando's Moreau is one type of abusive dad, the richly syllabled, educated kind who politely explains why he has to perform his little parenting experiments.)

The best movies and the best acting always have something a little funny about them, a penumbra of humor glowing around the edge of an eclipsed man. As fine as Nolte is, the starkness of the direction and lead performance makes Schrader's film, at worst, an affliction.

The Affliction (R; 113), directed by Paul Schrader, written by Schrader, based on the novel by Russell Banks, photographed by Paul Sarossy and starring Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe, James Coburn and Sissy Spacek.

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From the February 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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