Paul Schrader enriches the Banks account
by Peter Keough
AFFLICTION. Directed by Paul Schrader. Written by Paul Schrader based on the novel
by Russell Banks. With Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe,
Mary Beth Hurt, Jim True, Marian Seldes, Holmes Osborne, and Brigid Tierney. A
Lions Gate Films release. At the Showcase (Route 6 only).
At last, a film about family woes that practices truth in
advertising. Unlike the ironically labeled Happiness and The
Celebration and the sanctimoniously monikered One True Thing, Paul
Schrader's adaptation of Russell Banks's harrowing novel Affliction
plays it straight. From the opening scene, the oppression, rage, and pathos
of generations of patriarchal violence settles in to stay like the late-autumn
deep freeze lacerating the story's upstate New Hampshire setting. Starker and
more primeval than Atom Egoyan's brilliant rendition of Banks's The Sweet
Hereafter, Affliction unsparingly lives up to its title and
transcends it, transforming the squalid travails of its characters into the
clarity and consolation of tragedy.
The unlikely hero is Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte in his finest performance), a
middle-aged loser who makes ends meet by drilling wells and plowing snow for
shifty local entrepreneur Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne) and serving as the
town's token, part-time police officer. His marginal life is a concatenation of
humiliations, folly, and bad luck, with just enough bewildered awareness of his
condition to worsen it.
His plans are inspired by decency and love but spiral inevitably to the
opposite. Divorced twice from his high-school sweetheart, Lillian (Mary Beth
Hurt), and hoping to marry his nurturing waitress girlfriend, Margie (Sissy
Spacek), and start a new life, he tries to win the affection of his sullen
young daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), by buying her a cheesy tiger costume and
taking her to a town Halloween party, all of which he admits is "kind of
pathetic." While he's out smoking a joint with his young pal Jack Hewitt (Jim
True), Jill calls her mom and asks to be taken home. "I did not hit anyone,"
insists Wade when he knocks off the Tyrolean hat of his ex-wife's Volvo-driving
new husband. "I am not going to hit anyone."
Not yet, at any rate. The next day, as he's performing one of his few official
police duties as school crossing guard, a reference to his daughter causes him
to freeze in the middle of the road like Ray Bolger's Scarecrow, halting
traffic. A BMW zips by, nearly hitting him. When he shows up at the ritzy home
of the offender, rich Bostonian Mel Gordon (Steve Adams), to present a
citation, the ticket is thrown back at him, the door slammed in his face.
"I feel like a whipped dog," he confesses on the phone late at night, nursing
a mounting toothache, to his younger brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), a history
professor at Boston University. "But someday I'm going to bite back."
And so he will, in a scenario similar to Paul Schrader films dating back to
his screenplay for Taxi Driver. Mel Gordon's father-in-law, Evan
Twombley (Sean McCann), has been killed in a hunting accident involving Jack,
and Wade is goaded by his brother Rolfe's suspicions ("All I care about is what
happened," Rolfe says. "I am a student of history, remember?"). "Playing
policeman" as a scoffer puts it, Wade begins to put together a conspiracy
theory that includes Mel Gordon, Gordon LaRiviere, Jack, and all the demons
that torment him -- and that when resolved, however disastrously, will somehow
"Somebody needs to be punished," he tells Rolfe -- and that's the same
compulsion that raged through The Sweet Hereafter, the need to give
meaning to the devastations of chance and biological determination by
identifying a guilty party. Yet to identify the source of Wade's malady -- and
Rolfe's -- would be to pursue an endless chain of fathers afflicting sons with
inherited violence. The immediate link is the brothers' father, Glen (James
Coburn as an Archie Bunker from hell), lovingly called Pop no doubt because of
his ready fists. Shrunken now and almost pitiful, Pop remains a hateful
reminder to Wade of his legacy and fate and a catalyst of the catastrophe to
But it's a catastrophe that remains mysterious. The most elusive quality of
Banks's fiction is the slippery nature of point of view, of truth and its
perception. Although the challenge here is simpler than that faced by Egoyan in
The Sweet Hereafter with that tale's multiple narratives, it may be more
profound. The story is told by Rolfe as an attempt to re-create after the fact
what really happened, and it's telling that the first word of his infrequent
but meticulous voiceover narrative is "Imagine."
A refugee from his father's violence, Rolfe can be seen as its greatest
victim. (When he tells Wade that he's escaped "the affliction of my father's
violence," Wade laughs and says, "That's what you think.") His alternative to
anger is having no feeling at all, instead maintaining the icy detachment
needed to comprehend it and, like fellow afflicted artists Paul Schrader and
Russell Banks, to reinvent it as beauty.