Fiendish 'Affliction'

Suspense powers savage tale of violence in dysfunctional family


Of all the monsters who've thumped across the screen in the last couple years, none of them--not Godzilla, not Frankenstein (in "Gods and Monsters"), not Sigourney Weaver's alienating co-stars--is quite so terrifying as James Coburn.

Coburn's swigging beast of a drunk is at the black heart of "Affliction," a terrifyingly well-acted tale of fathers and sons from writer-director Paul Schrader. As Glen Whitehouse, the careening paterfamilias whose physical and verbal abuse spikes the movie, Colburn is a savage old man whose age hasn't dulled his evil. His hair may be white, his mind may be addled, but he's still a raging thug.

Coburn has already been recognized with an Oscar nod for his supporting role in "Affliction" (which opens today). Also nominated (in the best actor category, so they won't compete) is Nick Nolte, whose performance as Glen's wounded son is an agonizing --and archetypally crafted--downward spiral of blood and bottled fury. Flawed son struggles with powerful father, then yields to his own destiny: He's a tragic hero, his downfall fated from the start.

Based on the novel by Russell Banks (who also wrote "'The Sweet Hereafter"), "Affliction" takes a hard, square look at the brute inevitability of family violence. Like other Schrader films ("Blue Collar," Light of Day", the first third of "Hardcore"), this one uses a cold northern town as a mise-en-scene for raw dysfunction--we get the Currier and Ives snapshots of wintry life, but also get the feeling that Bad Things lurk under the comforting fluff of snow. And they do.

The film's beginning tells us exactly what to expect from its end: In ominous voice-over, Willem Dafoe (as the less-troubled son, Rolfe) announces the "criminal behavior and disappearance" that will conclude the yet-told tale of Wade. Yet knowing ahead of time what happens to Nolte's damned protagonist doesn't detract from the story's suspense--it adds to it, streaking a sad gray light across every turn in the plot. Wade will fall apart; that much is a given. It's how he falls apart, and whom he hurts in the process, that gives Schrader's film such dreadful power.

"You know, I get to feeling like a whipped dog sometimes, Rolfe" he tells his brother, in the first of several late-night phone conversations. "Someday I'm gonna bite back, I swear. I swear it."

Wade is, first of all, a lousy father. He botches his daughter's (Brigid Tierney) Halloween, drags her to a dullsville party, rages when she phones her mother (and his ex-wife, played by an iron-hard Mary Beth Hurt), then storms off to take a toke with a chum while she's waiting for Mom to pick her up. Nice guy.

But what makes Wade worth watching--and what puts such a curve on Nolte's performance--is the fact that he isn't all bad. He has a scrap of goodness in him, a shred of self-aware decency that allows him to be tender with his girlfriend (Sissy Spacek, simply transparent) and weakens his armor when he finds his mother dead in her bedroom. So begins Wade's noisy grapple with his dad, who has so far only terrorized his son in grainy childhood flashbacks.

By the time Glen tilts into the movie he's a stumbling, half-dead fool, but he's a stumbling, half-dead fool who exhales poison. When Wade says "I wish you'd die," you have to sympathize. (Pop spits in reply.)

Wade has other problems: His car's on the blink, his tooth is killing him, and he suspects his best friend Jim True) and his boss (Holmes Osborne) are in cahoots over a possible mob hit. The movie's one real flaw is its failure to remain coherent as Wade becomes incoherent -- the conspiracy subplot is supposed to be proof of Wade's fuzzy thinking, but it winds up being, proof of a fuzzy spell in the editing room. A silly continuity error (clear roads one second; a blizzard the next) adds to the suspicion that someone snored during postproduction.

But none of these problems detracts from Schrader's work, which displays the same keen understanding of men and devils as his screenplays for "Taxi Driver" and "The Last Temptation of Christ." In "Touch," his most recent directorial effort, he looked at the nature of miracles and the unexpected collisions of humanity and God. In "Affliction" he turns his eye again toward demons--the demons of childhood, of alcohol, of violence and of death.

MOVIE REVIEW: "Affliction"

Starring: Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe and Sissy Spacek
Director: Paul Schrader
Rating: R for harsh language, minor violence, some directed at children, and emotional intensity
Running time: 114 minutes
* * * 1/2 (****Excellent ***Good **Fair *Poor)

Amy Biancolli is the film critic for the Times Union. Her reviews appear regularly in Life & Leisure and Preview. Send email to [email protected] or call 454-5738.

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Russell Banks