Affliction

dir. Paul Schrader

Opens Fri Feb 19

at the Seven Gables

The best movie to open so far in 1999 actually has a 1997 copyright. Film lovers are used to this delay; foreign movies often sit a while before someone picks them up for American distribution. In the interim, advance reports for festival screenings only make the wait more frustrating. But Affliction is not a foreign film. It is the work of a fairly well-known director, and if its cast lacks a marquee star, it has a fistful of name actors. Then again, Affliction is a tough sell. It is so frenzied and sad, so extreme in its mix of New England cold and blazing fire, both internal and external, that even I question whether there's an audience for it. Not that it seems to be asking for one.

The setting--and this is one of those cases where the setting is as important as anything else--is the small town of Lawford, New Hampshire, a snow-shrouded, economically depressed community where everyone knows each other's secrets. It is there that Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) has lived his entire life: a childhood dominated by an abusive, drunken father (James Coburn); a young adulthood of running around and getting in trouble; and now, on the depressing side of middle-age, he's both a ditch digger for the town's pre-eminent businessman, Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne), and Lawford's police officer--a job practically given to him by LaRiviere that entails no more than writing up traffic violations and guarding the crosswalk when the school bus empties.

In addition to these go-nowhere jobs, Wade has a busted marriage; a daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), whom he barely sees; a girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek), who spends the night but dodges suggestions of marriage; a broken-down car; and the mother of all toothaches. The pressure's building. You can tell that from the first shot of Wade, wheedling and cajoling Jill into attending a Halloween party she doesn't want to go to, with his fake smile stretched so wide his jaws must ache. You can also tell it will be a fearsome eruption. As he says to his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) in one of the rambling late-night phone conversations that constitute their relationship, "I get to feeling like a whipped dog some days; someday I'm going to bite back."

Wade gets his chance when a big-shot businessman, visiting the region to bag a buck, dies in a hunting accident. That's the story, anyway, and an accident makes perfect sense. But Wade suspects murder. Even though there's no evidence to sustain that belief, he clings to it with the exultant certainty of a desperate man. Simultaneously, perhaps fired up by the vision of himself as the town hero, he sets about suing for custody of Jill, despite her clearly being better off, financially and emotionally, with her mother.

In one of those handy comparisons that coincidence occasionally provides, Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter are not only both based on novels written by Russell Banks, but both photographed by Paul Sarossy. The similarities end there. Nothing could be further from the blindingly clear expanses of Egoyan's film than Lawford's muddy streets and sleet-gray sky. If The Sweet Hereafter's elliptical elegance floats above the story, Affliction thrusts you right into the thick of fatally misguided love and ambition. This is familiar territory for Paul Schrader, of course, but he conveys it with a stunning directness, mostly keeping his camera still and allowing the energy of the characters to carry the momentum.

It may be impossible to overpraise the cast. Coburn's brutal patriarch is a sight to behold: vicious and proud of his reputation as Lawford's meanest bastard, yet also petulant and fearful. Dafoe perfectly captures the despair of the quiet man unwilling to own up to the demons he so easily recognizes in his older brother. Spacek is warm and sympathetic, yet when she finally sees how much the man she loves resembles his ogreish father, her laugh of recognition plays her own self-delusions across her face. Even Brigid Tierney captures the childish spite and mature understanding of Jill better than most any of the other lauded kid actors around.

And then there's Nolte.

There are, perhaps, better actors around today than Nick Nolte. There are, I suppose, roles more challenging than Wade Whitehouse. After two viewings of Affliction, however, I'm convinced that this is one of the greatest performances ever captured on film. The soul-crushing humiliations he endures, the exuberant glee when the pieces of the "mystery" start fitting together, the ingrained resort to violence and its attendant shame, the terrified little boy stumbling around in a massive adult frame--all these are captured perfectly, with not even a note out of place or unexplained. Wade's most ferocious outbursts are chilling to watch, but they only break your heart the more as Nolte shows how clearly they stem from the same wounded source as those sad, cautious steps he takes when walking by Pop.

Schrader orchestrates these elements with grace and finesse. There are some lovely little touches along the way--brief, elegant tracks that constrain the onscreen action to a limited space, then squeeze them even further, to the point where they threaten to burst. Primarily, though, what one notices is the choreography of the actors: Nolte, Spacek, and Coburn jostling for space in a tiny kitchen; Nolte and Dafoe failing to find equal ground walking around a garage. At a certain point it occurs to you that what seems like self-effacement might be patience; that--like Antonioni's The Passenger or Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God--this is a movie steadily building to one defining image. Indeed it is, and that image is as beautiful and terrifying, as elemental, as any I've seen. Here, Schrader has pulled off the film that his unique blend of European arthouse sensibility and Hollywood savvy always promised. Maybe that's what scared distributors off for so long, because that culminating image recalls nothing so much as the brooding stillness of Tarkovsky, but with a thoroughly American accent.

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