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Affliction (1997): Nick Nolte + Paul Schrader

Affliction movie Nick NolteAffliction movie with Nick Nolte: In Paul Schrader’s polished but unconvincing 1997 psychological drama, Nick Nolte gives his all – and more – to the difficult role of a psychotic police officer who becomes obsessed with a conspiracy theory.
  • Affliction (1997) movie review: Paul Schrader’s artful, great-looking, generally well-acted psychological drama about the lasting – and potentially deadly – effects of family abuse is marred by implausible situations and by Nick Nolte’s overstrung central performance.
  • Affliction synopsis: In a snowy New Hampshire town, disturbed middle-aged sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) becomes obsessed with the – however baseless – idea that the death of a visiting businessman was no mere accident.
  • Affliction won one Academy Award (for the year 1998, when it was released in the Los Angeles area): Best Supporting Actor (James Coburn). It received one additional nomination: Best Actor (Nick Nolte).

Affliction (1997) movie review: Narrative absurdities and an uncontrollable Nick Nolte hinder Paul Schrader’s visually and technically impressive psychological drama

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Set in the snowy (fictional) New Hampshire town of Lawford, writer-director Paul Schrader’s 1997 psychological drama Affliction could have been a thoughtful, unsettling depiction of a dysfunctional family’s cycle of violence and how this form of social impairment is accentuated by rapid, destabilizing socioeconomic changes.

Alas, such heights remain beyond the movie’s reach, as narrative issues and an inadequate central performance thwarts Affliction’s dramatic possibilities.

Affliction movie plot: The sheriff of fractured mind

Based on a 1989 novel by Russell Banks – who also penned the equally snowy The Sweet Hereafter, turned into a successful 1997 arthouse drama – Schrader’s Affliction relies on a realistic wintry atmosphere (courtesy of The Sweet Hereafter’s Paul Sarossy, shooting in Quebec) to convey the deadness that engulfs middle-aged sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte, who also received executive producer credit).

Wade is intent on not turning into his abusive, alcoholic father, Glen (James Coburn), while inexorably sliding down that very path. Only his neglected girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek), is capable of seeing through his neurotic tough-guy crust. Yet, despite her efforts, Margie is unable to stop Wade from drowning his angst in booze or from misdirecting it toward those around him, including his daughter Jill (Brigid Tierney).

Further complicating matters, Wade must live with a ghastly toothache, his mother (Joanna Noyes) suddenly dies, and – shades of Travis Bickle in the Schrader-written Taxi Driver – he becomes consumed by a conspiracy theory about the murder of an out-of-town businessman by a local police officer working at the behest of vast big-business interests plotting to transform sleepy Lawford into a luxurious winter resort.

Screenwriting and thespian disorders

Although Paul Schrader succeeds in setting the right tone for Affliction – the movie fully justifies its title – he fails to find large enough patches to cover the gaping plot holes that abound in his screenplay (whether or not originally found in Russell Banks’ novel).

In one crucial scene, for instance, Wade’s brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), inexplicably agrees with the disturbed cop’s flimsy conspiracy theory, the consequences of which are catastrophic both for the film’s characters and for its credibility.

Best Actor Academy Award nominee Nick Nolte is another problem. As in Barbra Streisand’s 1991 Oscar-nominated soap opera The Prince of Tides, he delivers an overwrought performance that is supposed to underline his character’s mental instability. Yet his acting has the exact opposite effect, as Nolte keeps reminding us that what we’re watching is a dedicated actor giving his all in a difficult role.

Don’t you sass James Coburn

On the positive side, in addition to its excellent production values (editing by Jay Rabinowitz, production design by Anne Pritchard, etc.) and Michael Brook’s haunting music, Affliction features several supporting players in top form, especially:

  • Mary Beth Hurt, as Wade’s unbending former wife.
  • Sissy Spacek (Best Actress Oscar winner for Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980), in a smallish, underwritten role as the understanding Margie.
  • Eventual Best Supporting Actor winner and Hollywood veteran James Coburn (The President’s Analyst, In Like Flint), as the abusive father who has scarred his older son for all eternity.[1]

When the massive, vicious-looking Coburn barks at Nolte, “Don’t you sass me!” he isn’t kidding.

This reviewer only wishes that Big Daddy had also sent a clear warning to Willem Dafoe, who sasses the voice-over narration, leaving a sour taste at the film’s final – and absurd – fadeout.

Affliction (1997) cast & crew

Director: Paul Schrader.

Screenplay: Paul Schrader.
From Russell Banks’ 1989 novel.

Nick Nolte … Wade Whitehouse
Sissy Spacek … Margie Fogg
James Coburn … Glen Whitehouse
Mary Beth Hurt … Lillian Horner
Willem Dafoe … Rolfe Whitehouse
Jim True … Jack Hewitt
Marian Seldes … Alma Pittman
Brigid Tierney … Jill Whitehouse
Christopher Heyerdahl … Frankie Lacoy
Holmes Osborne … Gordon LaRiviere
Tim Post … Chick Ward
Joanna Noyes … Sally Whitehouse
Janine Theriault … Hettie Rogers
Brawley Nolte … Young Wade Whitehouse
Michael Caloz … Young Rolfe Whitehouse
Marcel Jeannin … State Trooper
Steve Adams … Mel Gordon

Cinematography: Paul Sarossy.

Film Editing: Jay Rabinowitz.

Music: Michael Brook.

Producer: Linda Reisman.

Production Design: Anne Pritchard.

Costume Design: François Laplante.

Production Companies: Largo Entertainment | Reisman Productions | Kingsgate Films.

Distributor: Lionsgate (Lions Gate Films) (1998).

Running Time: 114 min.

Country: United States.

Affliction (1997): Nick Nolte + Paul Schrader” notes

Inspirational Sam Peckinpah

[1] James Coburn reportedly based his violent Affliction character on director Sam Peckinpah, with whom he had worked on three films as an actor (Major Dundee, 1965; Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973; Cross of Iron, 1978), and once as a second unit director (Convoy, 1978).

Release date

Affliction debuted at the 1997 Venice Film Festival.

The following year, it opened commercially in several markets, including Los Angeles and New York City.

Affliction movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.

Nick Nolte Affliction movie image: Lionsgate.

Affliction (1997): Nick Nolte + Paul Schrader” last updated in August 2023.

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1 comment

10k -

I love Affliction, from the first time I was mesmerized by it’s eerie and captivating beginning scenes back in ‘97 or ‘98 all the way through the past 20 years and the multitudinous viewings of which I’ve been a part. I was truly stunned by Nick’s anguished and tortured performance. He had me actually believing that he was this Wade Whitehouse character. Maybe Nick had to pull back or hold back a bit during some of his scenes shot with the legendary James Coburn who won an Oscar for his performance. And by hold back I mean in a physical manner because James had been suffering from severe Rheumatoid Arthritis but had taken MSM which helped relieve his pain so he was able to resume his career and move about more freely. If you’ll notice during the movie James and Nick have a few physical scenes and I would venture a guess that Nick was super aware of the potential for him to accidentally injure the great James Coburn so this may have been on Nolte’s mind during shooting and it could possibly have had an impact on his performance. Mind you I am completely and unequivocally over the moon regarding Nick’s acting performance in this film. In fact, I feel that the entire cast was really putting everything they had into their performances and the result was this fantastic movie Affliction. I also feel that Affliction is somewhat of a cult classic or will eventually be a cult classic one of these days. I just wanted to mention one more item of interest and that is the very talented Brigid Tierney who acted the role of Nolte’s daughter Jill in a beautifully under played manner. She was absolutely wonderful in this role and just so talented to play it the way she did, trading lines with actual legends of film and to be so believable while doing so.


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