In writer-director Paul Schrader’s Affliction, small-town New Hampshire looks like hell frozen over. It’s a vast meat locker of a locale, except the dead meat is walking around instead of hung up on hooks. The affliction here is metaphoric, but it’s literal too. That’s the Schrader specialty, and it’s also the stock-in-trade of Russell Banks, upon whose 1989 novel the film is scrupulously based. The confluence of Schrader and Banks is almost too perfect – their dual oppressiveness wipes you out before the movie is ten minutes old.
Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is the chief afflictee of the piece. Divorced twice from the same woman (Mary Beth Hurt), he attempts to be a part-time father to his 9-year-old daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), who regards him in the same way her mother does – as a brawling, dangerous nuisance. His response, typically self-humiliating, is to sue for custody. As the town’s sole police officer, Wade mostly acts as a crossing guard. To make ends meet, he does menial work for a local developer (Holmes Osborne), whose response to him isn’t much more admiring than Jill’s. Wade’s father, Glen (James Coburn), is a roaring, vicious drunk, and just in case we thought this a recent incarnation, Schrader periodically intercuts flashbacks showing the brute pummeling his young son.
Barreling his way through his frostbitten inferno, Wade is the prototypical walking wounded, Schrader-Banks-style. He may try to wriggle out of his fate, but it’s bigger than he is. In the film’s take-no-prisoners view, this is the fate of all men, who must either self-destruct or visit their ills upon a new generation. What makes Wade such a heroic presence is that he’s self-aware enough to know he’s in torment. He’s a good man gnarled by primal circumstance. He reaches out to his daughter because she represents for him the bliss of the normal; his sessions with her are botched and rancorous because he wants much more from her than she could ever give. Jill resents being used as an angel for her father’s salvation. In his dotingness she spots the note of inauthenticity – Wade responds not to her but, rather, to his idealization of her.
Wade’s waitress girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek), is another of his angels-in-waiting. Her mercifulness toward him is the tenderest thing in the movie. If Wade is the archetypal male screwup, Margie is the archetypal silent sufferer. In their scenes together, he has a ravaged calm and she looks ethereal from longing. She wants her bliss, too. Everybody in this movie – not just Wade and Margie – has a long-ago look in his eyes. They’re pulled in by the past, by its damages. Wade’s brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), who also narrates the film, has a death’s-head countenance. He’s a Boston University history professor with no sense of his own history. Speaking to Wade about their father, he says, “At least I was never afflicted by that man’s violence,” and Wade responds, “That’s what you think.”
The last film to have this kind of marrow-deep glumness was Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, also based on a Banks novel, in which a school-bus accident wipes out virtually all of a village’s children. I wasn’t such a big fan of that movie. Its horrors were displayed as an emanation of small-town anomie – as if its villagers deserved their tragedies because of the littleness of their lives. Schrader’s film also suffers from a heavygoing approach to rural malaise; he’s offering up a sophisticated intellectual’s take on the material, and there’s something distanced and diminishing about his methods. (At one point Wade holds up traffic by posturing as if crucified.) His people are all so fixed in their fates that there’s no possibility for joy. There never is in his movies. He turns winter-bound New Hampshire into a Hieronymous Bosch canvas: blasted souls topped by Wade’s father’s leering-gargoyle grin.
And yet this film is far more roiling and powerful than The Sweet Hereafter. It has the indrawn obsessiveness of male mythology, and even if you reject most of what it’s saying, it’s tough to shake off. It transcends your better judgment. Movies like Straw Dogs and Deliverance also operated in this realm of hallucinatory machismo; the survivalist tactics on display were framed as crucibles of masculinity. Affliction shares with them a sense of the world as a battlefield of male privilege, but it has a much drearier and more tragic overview. Affliction is the long hangover to those films. Schrader and Banks are saying that it’s impossible to break the long chain of brutality at the core of maleness. Rolfe’s narration near the end of the novel, in which he speaks on behalf of himself and Wade, and which Schrader largely incorporates, talks of boys and men who for thousands of years “were beaten by their fathers, whose capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth and whose best hope for a connection to other human beings lay in elaborating for themselves an elegiac mode of relatedness, as if everyone’s life was already over. It is how we keep from destroying in our turn our own children and terrorizing the women who have the misfortune to love us.”
This is highfalutin pop-psych palaver, and it carries a cock-of-the-walk gloat – especially that business about the “women who have the misfortune to love us.” But this sort of weepy-brawly riff has its deep-down appeal to men, and perhaps to women too. It explains, and it explains away. Schrader lays the blame for Wade’s sorry state on his father, but then he also casts the father as stand-in for a patriarchal line going back to the beginnings. Wade is both a special case and an unwitting player in a primordial procession. It’s Freudian and it’s biblical – quite a heavy load to lug.
But the film is blessed with a performance by Nolte that has real grace and sinew. Wade is the kind of character who is usually presented as a “type” in the movies – he’s the Joe Six Pack we take for granted. It’s Nolte’s genius as an actor to bring out the delicacy and hurt in hunky parts. He’s perfectly cast as Wade because he shows us how the man is miscast in his own life. Wade may be his father’s Frankenstein monster, but his innards are his alone. He’s too sensitive for the role he’s been assigned. Wade wants to do the right thing in his world, but he’s trapped not only by his own demons but by the unchangeable perception he has created in the town. When he sees a divorce lawyer about retaining custody of Jill, Wade halfheartedly tells him, “I’m not as dumb as I look.” Wade knows it, but does anybody else? When, in torment, he looks in the mirror, a stranger stares back at him. The whipped boy is ever present in the adult, and Wade seems to be playing out some elaborate, furious penance for having been that boy. He’s almost blithely unaware of his own need for protection: In a snowfall he’s often hatless, and he has a raging toothache that he finally takes a pair of pliers to. The grimace on his face when he pulls the tooth is scarily identical to his broadest smiles. His smiles are like scars. He’s afflicted, all right – beyond reckoning. The movie is his rightful dirge.