Affliction (Paul Schrader, 1997)
[originally posted 14Nov2001]
Paul Schrader and Nick Nolte have both had, at best, inconsistent careers. Putting the two of them together, one would assume that the resulting film had an above-average chance of being godawful. And yet somehow, what they ended up with was Affliction, a movie that garnered Best Actor noms for Nolte from everyone who matters and most who don’t, and actually garnered a Best Supporting academy award for James Coburn. The Academy, of course, have never been the world’s best judges of taste, but they hit the mark this time.
Wade Whitehouse (Nolte) is a part-time cop and city worker in a small town in upstate New Hampshire. He’s burdened with a pain-in-the-ass ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt), a new girlfriend (Sissy Spacek), a boss who’s a bit too slick for his own good (Homes Osborne), and an alcoholic father (Coburn) whose path he’s dangerously close to treading himself. When deer season begins with a suspicious hunting accident, both Whitehouse and his boss resent the State Police horning in immediately, and Whitehouse starts investigating.
Ultimately, the movie is a character study of Whitehouse and his relationship to his father, and the mystery of the dead deer hunter takes, or should take, second stage to this. And this is the film’s only major failing; Schrader and Russell Banks (adapting his own short story) feel the need, after sublimating the mystery in the film’s climax, to tie up the loose ends the script has spent two hours demanding be left at the end. Losing the last two minutes of narration would have done this film a world of good. But those last two minutes aren’t enough to undercut the first hundred sixteen, which are excellent through and through. I’m not normally a fan of Nick Nolte in any way, shape, or form, but he’s excellent in here, as is Coburn. Sissy Spacek shows us why she never should have fallen into obscurity after an all-too-short stint on the A-list, and Willem Dafoe, who plays Wade’s brother Rolf, does his usual excellent job despite having very little screen time. Aside from the wealth of starpower, the cinematography is grand. Well, as long as you like snow, snow, and more snow. Nice to see someone using something other than darkness to give a feeling of claustrophobia.
The climax, in this Oprah-infested age, is predictable, especially to anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with Russell Banks. That, however, is as irrelevant as who actually killed the deer hunter. ***½