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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suppressed Son Erupts in 'Affliction'




The powder keg in the small New Hampshire town has a name: Wade Whitehouse, keeper of the peace. As played with fierce, anguished intensity by Nick Nolte, who gives the performance of his career in Paul Schrader's quietly stunning film, Wade works part time as the town of Lawford's policeman and knows that his hardest job is policing himself.


But during the devastating course of "Affliction,'' Wade begins losing a life-long struggle with his army of demons. With gut-wrenching pity, the film watches pressures mount until Wade explodes.


"Affliction'' is adapted from a penetratingly astute, grief-tinged novel by Russell Banks, whose stirring voice is much in evidence here.


But its story is also well suited to Schrader, who finds in Wade's suffering a workaday "Taxi Driver'' in the snow. Schrader coaxes forth the oppressive forces around Wade until they achieve microcosmic fullness, from childhood beatings by his father to the covert economic rape of a working-class town. Though ponderous literary voice-overs (from Willem Dafoe as Wade's brother) provide armchair psychology, the film is about much subtler signposts on the road to destruction.


Forgoing any fanfare beyond the mournful strains of Michael Brook's score, Schrader has made a film that needs to be watched carefully. He gives it the deliberate plainness that makes every small exchange matter. It begins with Wade entertaining his doleful little daughter Jill (Brigid Tierney) on Halloween. As they drive through Lawford, the girl (comfortable with neither the town nor her father) asks Wade if he ever engaged in Halloween vandalism and says she thinks that he used to be bad. Forcing a smile, Wade tries to give a kindly, fatherly answer, but he can't. The voice of Wade's own raging father is still too loud.


In a shockingly savage performance, James Coburn rampages through the film as alcoholic Glen Whitehouse, the man who first cowed Wade into submission. Jumpy black-and-white flashbacks depict Glen's viciousness as this family's most fundamental fact of life and capture the terror of being a small boy at Glen's mercy.


These glimpses of the past are juxtaposed with Wade's habit of not making waves, either on the job or with the few people who care about him, unless something pushes him off balance. The first such shove here: betrayal by Jill, who has her angry mother (Mary Beth Hurt) come rescue her from Wade's Halloween.


As he plays crossing guard next morning, watching over every child except his own, Wade is further humiliated by a speeding hotshot in an expensive car. New money hovers around bleak little Lawford, as personified by this driver and his father-in-law. The older man, a powerful union official from Massachusetts, comes to Lawford just for the hunting, and on that very day is being guided through the woods by Jack Hewitt (Jim True), a smooth young man whose complacency rankles Wade. Alone with Jack, the union man is mysteriously killed, and suddenly Wade is one more inch off balance as he tries to investigate the shooting.


The most dangerous threat to Wade comes when, after trying to rekindle his relationship with a sweet, patient waitress named Margie (Sissy Spacek, luminous as ever), he takes her to his parents' home and stumbles into a nightmare. Glen, now old and infirm but no less monstrous, is too drunk to acknowledge the death of his wife upstairs, whom he always ignored anyway. Though Wade tries to deal sanely with Glen even when it comes to this catastrophe, it's too late.


Schrader guides "Affliction'' through these momentous events in a spare, sorrowful spirit that exposes their universality. Like "The Sweet Hereafter,'' a more meditative and elegant but less immediate, volcanic film, "Affliction'' finds the deeper meaning in an all too believable tragedy.


"Affliction'' succeeds in finding something larger than one man's misery.


- Janet Maslin


New York Times Service