This review has already been published by me at PFC: Affliction.
Inflamed by greed, incensed by hate, confused by delusion, overcome by them, obsessed by mind, a man chooses for his own affliction, for others’ affliction, for the affliction of both and experiences pain and grief- Buddha
Affliction to put in very simple terms is the pain or suffering from one’s own adversity. At times it can motivate a person to fight back, and move ahead. At other times, it can weigh down heavily on a person’s pysche, making him take out his pain on others. In 1976 Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay for a movie that defined the angst and loneliness of the 70′s generation. Travis Bickle was the voice of the urban loner, cynical, bitter, tormented inside, some one for whom “loneliness followed his life everywhere”. Some one who wished fervently for ” a real rain to come and wash away all the scum of the streets”. While Schrader had earlier written the screenplay for Sidney Pollack’s Yakuza , it was Taxi Driver that shot him into fame. Over the years, Schrader would write the hard hitting, no holds barred screenplays for other Martin Scorsese movies Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing out the Dead, as well as Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast. But while Schrader’s contribution as a screenwriter has been widely acknowledged, it is his other role as a director, that has somewhat been overlooked.
Somehow i feel the critics have not really acknowledged his role as a director, the verdict is still mixed. It is true that among his filmography, there are movies that have been distinctly Meh, Cat People and that Exorcist Prequel, of what i have seen. But I would say down the years, he has come up with some real brilliant stuff, movies that might not have made too much noise or hype, but worthy in their own way. The cynicism, bitterness and angst, that generally characterizes his scripts, flows down into his movies. It is hard not to feel affected by the sheer emotional intensity and the way his characters seem to hurtle down with no redemption in sight. Be it the 3 workers of a Rust Belt Factory trying to pull of a heist in Blue Collar or a conservative small town father searching for his runaway daughter amongst the sleaze ridden porno movie world in Hardcore or the American Gigolo on the run facing murder charges or the former TV star Bob Crane desperately trying to resurrect his career in Auto Focus, his movies are the kind that leave you shaken up and more often than not depressed. Could there be any thing more gut wrenching than that scene in Hardcore, where the father( George . C. Scott) watches his runaway daughter in a porn movie?
Affliction is the story of a cop Wade Whitehouse( Nick Nolte), living in one of those remote small towns all around US, where nothing much happens. Wade is a loner, eking out an existence, divorced, battling for the custody of a daughter Jill who never liked him much, and carrying on a relationship with a waitress Margie Fogg( Sissy Spacek). The movie starts off with a visual, showing the small town of Lawford, as the camera pans over the various places associated with the movie’s principal characters, as the VO of Rolf ( Wilelm Dafoe), Wade’s brother, recounts the proceedings. The opening scene itself sets up the rather troubled relationship between Wade and his daughter Jill. While he loves her, she unfortunately does not think too highly about him. But Wade’s affliction is much more than his bitter ex wife Jillian or his daughter, it has to do with Wade’s own troubled childhood.
Wade had been consistently abused as a child by his father Glen aka Pop( James Coburn). Some of the best moments in the movie are the intercutting flashbacks, that show Wade and his brother Rolfe having to endure their Dad’s abusive behavior. Pop is the kind of Dad, you would never want to have even in your worst nightmares. On a Christmas day he forces his sons to cut wood covered by snow and frozen. Or assaulting his mother and Wade, in a drunken mood, quite a harrowing scene. But to me the hardest hitting scene, was when Wade brings Margie home to meet his Dad, now almost 70, but no change in his behavior. The moment, where Wade walks into the bedroom and then finds out his Mom is dead is a shocker. What makes it so shocking is that Pop does not even know if Wade’s mom is dead or alive. I mean even granted the fact, that he is a callous, uncaring jerk, it still shocks to see that there exist such people.
Listen to your little brother. ‘Wade, just leave it.’ Candy-asses. All of you. That’s what I’ve got for children. Candyasses. ‘Wade, just leave it.’ Praise the Lord! ‘Just leave it!’
Wade’s troubled relationship with his domineering, abusive father, goes back to Schrader’s own childhood.Isn’t it ironical that the man who wrote the screenplays for some really memorable movies, did not actually see a movie till he was 18? Schrader grew up in a strict Calvinist household, where watching movies was forbidden. He grew up in a home, where his mom, felt there was nothing wrong in stabbing his hand with a pin, whenever he disobeyed her. The constant physical abuse Wade endures at the hands of his father, harked back to his own childhood days. Even in Hardcore, where the father( George . C.Scott) is shown as a morally upright man, he hints that it was his own strict dominating nature, that caused his daughter to run away from home. In Affliction, the more Wade tries to move away from his father’s shadow, the more he turns out to be some one like him. It is as if the years of abuse endured by Wade has scarred him permanently.
On the surface of it Affliction is a murder mystery, dealing with the “accidental death” of Evan Twombley, a union official, during a hunting trip. The suspect is the local town boy Jack Hewitt, who tags along with Twombley for the hunt. While Jack claims that the death was due to an “accident”, Wade feels that there could be more to it. Again some of the movie’s most engaging parts are the ones where Wade keeps talking to his brother Rolfe on phone, about his views on the crime. For a major part of the movie, we feel Rolf’s presence only through the VO narration, and the conversations on phone between Wade and him. But it is his through his character that we actually get to know more of Wade, and his behavior. Also his relationship with Wade seems a bit more ambiguous, initially he seems disproving of his brother’s theories on the incident, but then he is the one who suggests to Wade that what he thinks might be true.
Affliction is not an easy movie to watch. It is dark, depressing, and more often than not moves at a rather slow pace. I know many people find such kind of movies not having “entertainment” or “boring”, but i generally like these sort of slow paced psychological thrillers. The kind of movies where the emphasis is on the characters and their motivations, what leads them to their actions. One reason why Insomnia still remains one of Nolan’s best movies for me, while many claim it is his “weakest” movie to date. The leisurely pace of Affliction mirrors the pace of the small town, and the dark, gloomy winter atmosphere, the perpetually snow covered fields and roads, in a way set up the movie’s moods. I felt though the ending could have been better. While it is quite hard hitting and bleak, the excessive VO at the end, somewhat lessened the impact. While for me Auto Focus to date remains Paul Schrader’s best movie as a director, i would rate Affliction next to it.
Affliction is also helped by some great performances by it’s cast. Nick Nolte,
is top notch as Wade Whitehouse, the troubled, protagonist. Showcasing a protagonist under extreme emotional stress, coming apart, Nolte more often than not delivers. Sissy Spacek
is as charming as ever, and to me one of the best actresses around. She lends grace, dignity and depth to her part as Margie. And yes of course James Coburn
as the abusive dad, in an Oscar winning performance. Coburn was one of the 60′s stars, usually playing the “tough as nails guy” in umpteen Western and war movies. And here in a role, that actually mocks at “machoism”, Coburn is brilliant. With his gruff voice, huge build and a nasty snarl, he makes sure that Glen Whitehouse aka Pop, will always find a place in the Rogues Gallery.