'Affliction' movie: Great-looking psychological drama fails to coalesce
Set in a snowy New Hampshire town, Affliction could have been an excellent depiction of a dysfunctional family's cycle of violence and how that is accentuated by rapid, destabilizing socioeconomic changes. Unfortunately, writer-director Paul Schrader's 1998 film doesn't quite reach such heights.
Based on a novel by Russell Banks (who also penned the equally snowy The Sweet Hereafter), Schrader's Affliction relies on a realistic wintry atmosphere (courtesy of cinematographer Paul Sarossy) to convey the deadness inside the story's protagonist, the middle-aged, small-town sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte). The angst-ridden Wade is intent on not ending up like his abusive, alcoholic father, Glen (James Coburn), while inexorably sliding down that very path.
Toothache and conspiracy theory
Making matters more complicated, Wade must come to terms with the fact that his ex-wife, Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), will never return to him, and that his erratic behavior has alienated his daughter. Only his neglected girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek), is capable of seeing through his neurotic, tough-guy crust. Yet, despite her efforts, even Margie can't prevent Wade from drowning his angst in booze or from misdirecting it toward those around him.
If that weren't enough, Wade starts suffering from a horrendous toothache (a reminder that he's painfully alive), his mother suddenly dies, and he develops an obsession with the death of an out-of-town businessman during a hunting trip. He is certain that the man was murdered by a fellow police officer, Jack (Jim True), and that there is a vast big-business conspiracy to turn the sleepy town into a luxurious winter resort.
Afflicted by writing, acting shortcomings
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 (and possibly in Russell Banks' novel, which I haven't read). In one crucial scene, for instance, Wade's brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), inexplicably agrees with his 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 soap opera The Prince of Tides, he delivers an overwrought performance that is supposed to underline Wade's mental instability, but that has the exact opposite effect. Instead of making this viewer focus on the character, Nolte kept reminding me that I was watching a dedicated actor doing his utmost to tackle a difficult role.
Don't sass James Coburn
On the positive side, in addition to the all-around excellent production values and Michael Brook's haunting music, Affliction features several supporting players in top form, especially Mary Beth Hurt, as Wade's unbending ex-wife; Sissy Spacek, in a smallish role as the unstable hero's long-suffering girlfriend; and Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning veteran James Coburn (The President's Analyst, In Like Flint), as the abusive father who has scarred his older son for all eternity.
When the massive, vicious-looking Coburn barks at Nick Nolte, “Don't you sass me!” he isn't kidding. This viewer only wishes Big Daddy had also sent a clear warning to Willem Dafoe, who sasses the voice-over narration, leaving a sour taste at the final – and absurd – fade-out.
'Affliction,' 'Taxi Driver' connection
 The 1998 Affliction – actually first seen in festivals in 1997 – is totally unrelated to Derek Lee and Clif Prowse's 2013 Canadian horror drama Afflicted.
 Although their backgrounds and motivations aren't quite the same, Wade Whitehouse shares a couple of psychopathic elements in common with Travis Bickle, the lead character played by Robert De Niro in the Paul Schrader-written, Martin Scorsese-directed Taxi Driver.
Dir.: Paul Schrader.
Scr.: Paul Schrader. From Russell Banks' novel.
Cast: Nick Nolte. Sissy Spacek. James Coburn. Willem Dafoe. Mary Beth Hurt. Jim True-Frost (as Jim True). Marian Seldes. Christopher Heyerdahl. Tim Post. Brigid Tierney. Janine Theriault. Paul Stewart. Wayne Robson. Eugene Lipinski.
Sam Peckinpah: An inspiration
- Major Dundee (1965).
Cast: Charlton Heston. Richard Harris. Jim Hutton. James Coburn. Michael Anderson Jr. Senta Berger. Mario Adorf.
- Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973).
Cast: Kris Kristofferson. James Coburn. Richard Jaeckel. Katy Jurado. Chill Wills. Barry Sullivan. Jason Robards.
- Convoy (1978).
Cast: Kris Kristofferson. Ali MacGraw. Ernest Borgnine.
James Coburn was an assistant director.
- Cross of Iron (1978).
Cast: James Coburn. Maximilian Schell. James Mason. David Warner. Senta Berger.
Affliction movie cast info via the IMDb.
Affliction movie image featuring Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe and Sissy Spacek: Lionsgate Films, via Passion for Movies.