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  • Benjamin May

Affliction (1997) Review

Wade Whitehouse is a policeman in a snowy New Hampshire hamlet. Divorced, depressed and nursing a burgeoning drinking problem, he isn't what one would call mentally stable. He lives in the shadow of his abusive father, Glen, a brutal arch-manipulator who makes it his business to belittle Wade at every turn. As Wade investigates a supposedly accidental shooting, he becomes obsessively convinced that there is more to the crime than meets the eye. As the case intensifies- and his father's cruelty continues to erode his sanity- Wade falls into a violent spiral of madness from which he can never return.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader- and based on the novel of the same name by Russell Banks- 'Affliction' is a tense, tough psychological thriller that examines the devastating effects of abuse on the psyche. The film shows in subtle detail how years of disparagement and violence can destroy someone mentally, leading to psychosis and an inevitable breakdown. The characters involved are routinely believable, both in terms of writing and performance, and Schrader never resorts to sensationalism to further the narrative. It is a stark piece of realism in many respects, giving credo to Shakespeare's line that "the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children."

'Affliction' is a visually striking, heavily atmospheric venture boasting fine cinematography from Paul Sarossy. He shoots the landscape to heighten its drabness- its never-ending scope- in a manner most effective. At times it is reminiscent of 'Fargo,' with the snow- pervasive and claustrophobic- covering everything in sight, obscuring the dangers lurking 'neath the surface. Sarossy's utilization of space in interior shots is arresting, and the way he captures a pivotal scene involving a tooth and a pliers is intensely visceral, uncomfortable and unforgettable.

Unforgettable too are the performances from the cast. Nick Nolte stars as Wade, giving an intense performance that ranks alongside his very best. Brooding and fidgety, he is a bundle of insecurities and impulses, a complicated man if ever there was one. Nolte brings this character to life in a way that is terrifically understated, yet undeniably powerful; never resorting to theatrics or verging into overacting. Just as Dennis Hopper was Frank Booth or De Niro Travis Bickle, so too is Nick Nolte Wade Whitehouse- no-one could be better for the role.

The same can be said for James Coburn, co-starring as Glen- he is pitch-perfect. Coburn has never been so frightening on screen and, like a mad tsar, he revels in his depravity. Clearly having the time of his life, he delivers what may be his finest on-screen performance, creating in Glen a man so insidious and vile watching him may make your skin actually crawl. He and Nolte work together brilliantly and you don't doubt for a minute that they share a complicated, dark history. Coburn rightly won the Oscar for his performance- it is a true tour-de-force.

Also starring are Sissy Spacek and Willem Dafoe, as Wade's girlfriend Margie and his brother Rolfe, respectively. Spacek has never given a bad performance on screen, and creates in Margie a kind, considerate and (above all else) patient woman- the only source of goodness in Wade's cold world. She is marvelous, consistently underplaying it and leaving an indelible impression on the viewer. Dafoe too is excellent, though his character is underutilized and- arguably- a little underwritten. He doesn't have enough screen time to make something interesting out of Rolfe; but does fine work nevertheless.

Paul Schrader's 'Affliction' is a brilliant, sinister thriller, dealing with mature themes in an interesting, subtle way. Boasting a fascinatingly intense central performance from Nick Nolte, as well as a career best one from co-star James Coburn, it is a film that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout its run. Tense, violent and unpredictable, 'Affliction' is a shockingly raw and naturalistic portrait of a man's descent into madness that one cannot recommend more highly.


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