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With: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Jim True, Holmes Osborne, Willem Dafoe, Mary Beth Hurt, Brigid Tierney
Written by: Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Russell Banks
Directed by: Paul Schrader
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Running Time: 114
Date: 08/28/1997

Affliction (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Winter's Trail

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even though it's only opening in the Bay Area now, Paul Schrader's Affliction (from the novel by Russell Banks) was one of those movies screened for critics and the Academy in late December of last year for consideration for year-end awards and top-ten lists. Movie companies do that when they think they've got something good. They were right.

Affliction is a character study, the story of one person rather than a work of cinematic beauty and poetry. It's a story about the world. But one person can be a poem in and of themselves, as we've seen in movies like On the Waterfront (1954) or Sophie's Choice (1982). In Affliction, Nick Nolte stars as Wade Whitehouse, a jack-of-all-trades living in a small town in New Hampshire. It's wintertime, and his job consists of being a crossing guard and driving a snowplow.

Wade is a man who stubbornly sticks to what he believes in, whether or not he's wrong. He has many crusades in Affliction. The biggest one is a mystery that develops when his best friend is hired as a hunting guide for the town's rich tycoon. The tycoon is somehow shot and killed deep in the snowy woods and Wade believes that it was a murder for money. He also spends a good deal of time trying to issue a traffic ticket to the tycoon's spoiled son, trying to get full custody of his daughter, trying to keep up a relationship with his girlfriend (Sissy Spacek), and trying not to go to the dentist to get a painful tooth pulled.

We eventually learn through flashbacks and present-day scenes that Wade's behavior comes directly from his alcoholic and tyrannical father, played to great effect by James Coburn (Payback) who was nominated by the Academy for Best Supporting Actor earlier this week. Through dialogue and subtle action we see how Wade's father has smothered his spirit, his freedom, and his soul. We also meet Wade's younger brother (Willem Dafoe), who narrates the story. He has moved away and become a professor whose soul has been equally destroyed but whose career has survived through learned caution.

Affliction is a terrifying movie that faces the truth of cruelty and its everlasting results. Nick Nolte, who has won several acting awards so far, has recently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He creates a complete portrait of Wade, stemming from a fictional childhood. Writer and director Schrader has a long career of looking at the dark side of human behavior -- madness, regret, loneliness, brutality, and obsession. He wrote the screenplays for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), and directed American Gigolo (1980) and Light Sleeper (1992). Although Affliction lacks visual flair (A Simple Plan used its snowy settings much more poetically) it succeeds by taking an observing tone and not looking away. Schrader is admirable for always keeping on this track and never becoming involved in mega-productions that he does not believe in. In other words, he is an artist. Affliction is a rare kind of movie that never makes much money but those who see it will never forget it.

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