“Affliction” – 1997. Dir. Paul Schrader. With Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe, Sissy Spacek, Mary Beth Hurt, Holmes Osborne and James Coburn.
“This is the story of my older brother’s strange criminal behavior and disappearance. We who loved him no longer speak of Wade. It’s as if he never existed.” – Willem Dafoe’s opening narration.
The title of the film, “Affliction” is one of the most suiting titles for any film that I have ever seen. The title sums up the entire film, and along with the cover art you know you are in for one dark and disturbing trip to the dark side of humanity.
The film doesn’t even start off innocent as you think it would. The film is grainy and the original musical score by Michael Brook (who did the score for “Deadwood” and “Into the Wild”) makes the film eerie right from the start. What adds to the grainy film and the score is Willem Dafoe’s voiceover that opens up the film. Grab onto your ankles.
Nick Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, a small town police officer who begins to lose control of everything.
The film begins with Wade having a tooth ache and a Halloween party where he has his daughter with him, he’s trying to convince her to have fun and go play with children that she doesn’t even know. Wade steps out for a cigarette and comes back to find his daughter sitting by a pay phone where she called his ex-wife to come and pick her up.
This is the first event that sends Wade closer and closer to the deep end. He gets irate, gets upset with his daughter and leaves, he goes for a burn cruise with his deputy and comes back to find his ex-wife and new husband taking his daughter away. He gets into an argument with his ex, and ends up aggressively pushing her new husband.
Wade is convinced that the reason his daughter doesn’t want to spend time with him is because of all the awful things his ex-wife is telling her about him. He decides he is going to call a lawyer and go to court over custody of his daughter. We then see Wade the next morning in a bar where his girlfriend Sissy Spacek works. A fellow patron is telling the story of when Wade and his brother Rolfe (Dafoe) were little, their father (James Coburn) made them go out in the dead of winter to get wood from their wood pile that was covered in snow and ice.
We enter into a flashback as Wade listens to the story. The flashbacks are brutally haunting, they are filmed with a handheld camera, and it feels like a home movie filmed on Super 8 by a child. The first time we see Coburn his hair is jet black (it’s a semi poor attempt to make him look younger, but you get over it very quickly). Papa Whitehouse is herding his boys outside with shovels so they can dig up wood from the pile, he begins to yell at them to work harder, move quicker, not to give up. The children get verbally abused extremely hard, they run inside to their mother and Coburn laughs and mocks them and follows them inside. Once inside Coburn pours himself a drink and yells at himself about how his sons are quitters. His wife than cautiously enters the kitchen to try and talk to Coburn. She’s scared to death of him.
Coburn than begins to patronize her, telling her what a “good woman” she is. She pleads with him to stop and as Coburn winds up to hit his wife, little Wade runs to her defense and pushes Coburn away. Big mistake. Coburn looks down at his son, and tells him what a big man he is, and then he hits him, knocking him down to the ground.
The day of the flashback Nolte and Spacek travel to his parent’s house to see them. They get there and the house looks dilapidated and unkempt. Once they enter the home its ice cold and the kitchen is filled with empty cans, and boxes and other debris. In the family room Coburn sits in long underwear and is watching TV. Wade is cautious around his father, walking on egg shells. He asks his father where his mother is, and Coburn says she’s sleeping upstairs.
Coburn stands up and walks over into the kitchen, his hands are twisted and mangled from his arthritis and it just adds to the evilness of his character. Nolte asks again about his mother, and Coburn says he’ll go wake her. As Coburn leaves, Spacek begins to clean and tells Nolte to check the furnace and get some wood for the burner. Nolte neurotically begins to consume salt to help ale his tooth ache. Coburn comes back down and says that Nolte’s mother is getting ready.
They continue with an awkward conversation until Nolte goes upstairs to see what his mother is doing. He goes to his parent’s room and his mother is dead. She’s been dead for weeks just laying in the master bed. Add his mother’s death to his flashbacks from his father, a tooth ache, his problems with his daughter and ex-wife and his drinking. One more thing: a hunting accident with his deputy and a rich financial tycoon who is under a cloud of suspicion with the mob and the unions over a land deal gone awry.
The report of the accident was that the tycoon accidentally shot himself. Wade moves in with his father, and his paranoia grows to an extreme. His brother’s suspicion about the death of the tycoon, Wade’s drinking and his father’s “affliction” sends Wade over the deep end. This film includes one of the most stomach turning scenes ever, it made me look away from the screen the first time I saw it.
What really makes this film work to near perfection are the performances. Nolte gives the performance of his career. It’s painful to watch Nolte spin out of control. Willem Dafoe is our only grasp of sanity in the film. He’s the only character who is semi normal. He’s this way because he fled the small town after high school; he left and never came back. What does bring Dafoe back is the death of his mother, and to try and help his brother Wade.
I know I’ve spoken a lot about “tour de force” performances, but James Coburn is perfect. Coburn gives an absolutely haunting performance as the boy’s father. Actually, he gives the most haunting performance I have ever seen. He is one of the most evil characters ever depicted on screen. What makes his character so brutally haunting is that you find yourself almost sympathizing with him, he anger and sadness sinks into you. You want to help him – but you just can’t. I know the Academy has gotten a lot of awards wrong, but giving Coburn the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was one of the best things they ever did.
James Coburn is one of the only actors that can make Nick Nolte cower. Nolte’s characters are always men that won’t bend or break for anyone. It’s hard to believe anyone to be able to scare Nolte, but Coburn is absolutely perfect. He’s much like Jack Palance in “Batman”. Who else could have believably played Jack Nicholson’s boss? Same goes for Coburn. He’s one of the only actors that could believably play Nolte’s domineering afflicting father.
This is one of the roughest movies I have ever seen. I mean this is written for screen and directed by the guy who wrote two drafts of “Taxi Driver” in one week! Viewer be advised.