Affliction takes a man with a messed up life and tears it to shreds.
From the opening of Affliction you know that this is not a Hollywood-type film. The mellow opening with its seemingly still pictures of a quiet town is a masterful way of settling the audience into the groove of the film. And it also serves to start the film off on a happy note – a note that doesn’t last long in Affliction. As the film goes on, we hear an eerie narration done by Willem Dafoe.
Rolfe Whitehouse (Willem Dafoe) narrates and speaks about his brother, Wade (Nick Nolte), who is the policeman in a small town. Rolfe lives in Boston and is not the main character of Affliction. Wade is the focus of the film. Wade is a loser, plain and simple. He’s a man who’s taken all the wrong turns in life – many times taking the wrong turns twice. Wade and Rolfe grew up as abused kids – taking both verbal and physical abuse from their father (James Coburn). Wade was more affected than Rolfe.
Wade’s troubles include a job he hates, a daughter from his divorce that hates him, and a dad who lives too close and is still quite abusive. Wade does have better parts in his life, like his girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek). As the film moves on, the troubles start to compound on Wade. The flashpoint of the trouble start when Wade’s friend Jack takes a rich man out deer hunting. Something goes wrong and the rich man is killed. Jack says it was an accident, Wade thinks different.
Though the death is the flashpoint, it is not the focus of the film. The film concentrates on the characters. Wade being the biggest of them and later on in the film Wade’s dad is added. These two characters are so well written that the film would have been engrossing even with out the hunting accident. What we see is that abuse comes in vicious cycles – as we can see how the cycle goes from Wade’s father to Wade.
I’m not accustomed to seeing Nolte in dramatic roles, so it took me a little to get used to him as Wade. But, once I accepted him as Wade, Nolte’s performance was brilliant. Nolte was able to make me sympathetic to him throughout the film – which at points was hard since as the film progresses, his character becomes more and more withdrawn from reality. The character of Wade is what characters in Hollywood should be like. Fleshed out and well-written, Wade shows that a movie doesn’t have to rely solely on special effects to be engaging.
Coburn as Wade’s father is one of the scariest, most unpredictable characters in the film – and in recent memory. Coburn turns in a wonderfully textured performance as Wade’s father.
The one small thing that felt out of place in Affliction was a short car chase in the middle of the film. Is it some sort of requirement to have a chase in every movie? But, this is a small shortcoming when looking at the film as a whole.
The script by Paul Schrader is wonderful in its characterizations. Schrader, working off of Russell Banks' novel, gives us characters that we can follow and feel for. Schrader has put together a film that studies the lives of many people and shows us what consequences come from their actions. He humanizes Wade, a man who is spiraling down to an unknown point.
Affliction is not a happy film. It is depressing and gloomy by the end. But, at the end we come to understand what it is like to be a man who has made all the wrong turns in life and ends up at a point where there’s no turning back. Director/writer Paul Schrader has put together a character study that will haunt the audience. Kudos to Schrader for not putting together a Hollywood-type happy film and going his own way while making Affliction. I read in an article where James Coburn says that Affliction will not be a film that will have people lining up to see it. I agree that this film with its limited distribution will not have people lining up to see it. But, Affliction is a Don’t Miss film. If you miss Affliction in the theatres, Don’t Miss it on video.