Cinema: The great American breakdown

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Affliction (15)

Director: Paul Schrader

Starring: Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek

113 mins

Everyone knows you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. Yet you can certainly break eggs without making an omelette.

Consider Paul Schrader. As a filmmaker he has, over the years, broken quite a number of eggs - by which I mean accepted challenges, taken risks, breached taboos - without ever producing an entirely satisfactory omelette of a movie.

The taboos have been socio-political (Blue Collar, which was set among the American cinema's least favourite demographic category, the working classes); socio-sexual (American Gigolo, still probably his best-known movie); cinematic (his remake of the Jacques Tourneur horror film Cat People); religious (his screenplay for Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ); even biographical (Mishima). But, for one reason or another, generally for several at once, the results have seldom been persuasive.

Blue Collar was let down by its TV docudrama dramaturgy. American Gigolo foundered on the preposterous notion that an Armani-suited Californian rent boy, what you might call smooth trade rather than rough trade, would serve as an effective conductor of Bressonian spirituality. (There's a thesis to be written on the fad for the adjective "American" as an instant short cut to resonance in book and film titles: An American Tragedy, American Psycho, etc.) The Last Temptation of Christ was a failure, albeit an honourable one, whose primary interest for Scorsese was patently the visual pyrotechnics he could indulge in during the crucifixion scene. Cat People was a gaudy travesty of Tourneur's enduringly mysterious masterpiece. And Mishima was a bloated mishmash (or mishimash) of voyeuristic perversity and chic japonaiserie. (In fairness, I should add that he also scripted Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which most people like better than I do.)

His latest, Affliction, based on the Russell Banks novel, may however prove to be a turning-point for him, if for no other reason than that it has received not one but two acting Oscar nominations - for Nick Nolte and James Coburn. Nolte's performance in particular is startlingly brilliant, so much so that it might easily have overwhelmed another, weaker work. Affliction, though, is not just a "vehicle" for an Oscar-hungry actor, not just, as is so often the case, a showy role with a self-effacing movie attached to it.

Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, the sole law officer in a snow-blanketed New Hampshire hamlet and a man buckling under a crippling load of problems. To the townsfolk he's the kind of born loser and lunkhead no small community is ever without. His eight-year-old daughter finds him a scary embarrassment, he drinks too much, smokes dope on the sly and has a bad tooth that's aching to be pulled (even symbolic toothaches, it seems, can drive you crazy). His father, an ogreish, drunken bully, played by a sinisterly jovial Coburn, who understands just how close a grin is to a snarl, beat him in his childhood and is still around to haunt his dreams. Wade is, in short, the classic time-bomb waiting to explode; and the fuse is the death, in ambiguous circumstances, while out deer-hunting, of a prominent local businessman.

"I get to feeling like a whipped dog some days," he mumbles darkly. "Some day I'm going to bite back." The day he bites back is what Affliction is about.

It's an actor's movie all right (the visual style is serviceable, no more), but, as I say, not merely an excuse for histrionic virtuosity. What is extraordinary about Nolte's performance isn't just that his character genuinely develops throughout the movie - already a fairly rare occurrence in the Hollywood cinema - but that the gradations of that development are virtually imperceptible to the naked eye. To start with, he's your mastodonically slow-moving, slow-thinking Average Joe, the sort of man in whose beery company you wouldn't want to spend too much time but whom you'd guess, from a strategic distance, to be a basically amiable and well-meaning guy. By the end, he's become a pitiful grotesque, a big, dumb hunk, haplessly flailing out of control, lumbering about the snow like Karloff as Frankenstein's monster (to whom Nolte at times bears an uncanny resemblance) and even perpetrating on the daughter who alone appears to lend purpose to his life the same physical violence of which he himself had been a victim in his own childhood. And yet there's not a single moment in the narrative when one could freeze the image and say, there! there's where the director has leapt over a crucial step, there's where the character's personality is not quite what it was an instant before. Both performance and movie itself are, to borrow a mathematical expression, "everywhere dense": it would be impossible to dismantle them to see how they work. This is a real and unusual achievement.

No downside? Afraid so. As always, the director has been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to leave well alone. Although the permanently snowbound setting and sombre atmosphere are faithful to Banks's novel, he wildly overplays the pathetic fallacy. Affliction is sometimes so humourless, chilly and cramped that it's a wonder everyone in it hasn't started running as psychotically amok as Nolte. Worst of all is what is presumably Schrader's attempt to give the movie a "novelistic" depth by having Willem Dafoe (who plays Nolte's younger brother) comment off-screen on the action and its implications. Even on-screen, Dafoe is rather stilted and implausible in his role, but for the commentary he's required to abstain from employing all common grammatical contractions (thus "do not" instead of "don't", "will not" instead of "won't"), which makes him sound just like Nicely Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls. He also spells out points that, thank you, we got for ourselves.

So still not a totally satisfactory omelette from this frustratingly uneven film-maker. Let's say, rather, a curate's omelette, very good in parts.