Film: The father of all battles

The Big Picture
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The Independent Culture



In Paul Schrader's majestically sombre film Affliction, Nick Nolte gives a performance of such rage and sorrow the screen seems hardly big enough to contain him. Nolte has hinted at this brutish grandeur before - as the painter in Martin Scorsese's segment of New York Stories, for instance - but this time he truly turns himself inside out for the cause. He plays Wade Whitehouse, a hulking traffic cop in a small, snowbound New Hampshire town where everybody knows each other's business. It's a place blasted not just by snow and wind but by the possibility of extinction - developers want to turn the area into a ski resort.

That possibility only gradually occurs to Wade, who's got problems of his own to worry about. His ex-wife has gone stone cold on him, and seems to be turning their daughter the same way; he's signed up a lawyer he can't afford to sort out custody. His mother has just died in the house his father (James Coburn) is too senile to keep warm. He makes anxious long-distance phonecalls to his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), who managed to escape their small town years ago. And, to cap it all, Wade has a lulu of a toothache. Whether nursing a beer at the local bar or lumbering gracelessly through the streets, he has the air of a man desperate to believe he can still make something of his life.

Adapting from the novel by Russell Banks, Schrader sets up what appears to be a murder mystery. A visiting businessman dies in a hunting accident, which Wade investigates as a matter of routine; on learning that the dead man was a union bigwig he begins to suspect that a real-estate conspiracy is afoot. His brother supports this theory. All of Wade's confused resentment and paranoia start heating up as he becomes convinced of wrongdoing in high places.

Yet the film has thrown us a feint. Just as it looks poised to be a snow- blinded version of Chinatown, it turns inward rather than outward: its real subject is the damaged psychology - the spiritual toothache - of Wade himself. Grainy flashbacks recount how he and Rolfe were tyrannised by their violent drunk of a father, who tells them, "You'll thank me for this one day, boys" (telltale words of the self-justifying abuser). We come to realise that Wade is at war with his genes: he's terrified of turning into the same monster as his father.

It's understandable why Schrader cares so passionately about this material. He and his older brother Leonard were raised by Dutch Calvinist parents whose religious orthodoxy went hand-in-hand with a near-sadistic bent; in Peter Biskind's recent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Leonard recalled how their father used to whip him six or seven times a week. Whatever scars the experience left on the younger Schrader, it also gave him his subject: the agony of men - fathers, brothers, husbands - struggling to overcome their violent instincts. His scriptwriting on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is well documented, yet I think his greatest work was the underrated Light Sleeper, a mysterious, intimate film in which Willem Dafoe's drug dealer ghosted around New York like a lost soul from Dante. Dafoe's role as narrator in Affliction is less satisfactory, and points up the film's slightly stilted literariness; why does he relate Wade's story in this detached, over-deliberate manner? By the end one may have worked out an answer to the question, but the dispassionate tone seems prissy, and even rather sinister, from a man who purports to love his brother.

Despite the awkwardness of this framing device, the film is kept alive by the immensely powerful grip of Nick Nolte's performance. It's not often one sees vulnerability so delicately entwined with volcanic anger. With his pinprick eyes and DIY haircut, Wade has the not-too-bright look of the town's chief sad case, yet he seems well-liked by its folk. He just doesn't quite get people. His galumphing efforts at tenderness towards his daughter suddenly cloud over into moroseness, and we sense how deeply he is afflicted by lack of understanding; he's willing, indeed desperate, to love, yet there's something badly askew in his emotional responses. Whenever we see him tense up in his father's presence, lines from Larkin toll insistently: "Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf." As Nolte's performance builds, the similarities between father and son take on a tragic inevitability. (Wade's peculiar habit of licking a dab of salt from the back of his hand is a direct imitation of his old man.) "I shoulda froze," says Coburn as he looks upon his dead wife, not realising that his sons' patrimony has been one big chill.

American cinema is strewn with studies of anguished father-son conflicts, yet few have brought the same depth and intricacy to the task as Schrader and Nolte do here. Any disappointment over Affliction refusing to become the detective story it seems to promise is eclipsed by a feeling that this unpredictable director has delivered a valuable and complex work of art. The film's most memorable image is of Wade sitting alone in his kitchen, while through the window, in full view, a barn is ablaze. It contrasts the stillness of an Edward Hopper with the molten fury of a mind in meltdown.

The patience and exactness of Schrader's storytelling, and the commitment of a fine cast that includes Sissy Spacek as Wade's defeated girlfriend, lend the movie something deeper than a small-town tragedy - it's a wintry fatalism that haunts and holds.