"You know, I get to feeling like a whipped dog some days," Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) tells his brother during a late night telephone call. "Some night I’m going to bite back, I swear it."
"Haven’t you already done a bit of that?" Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) answers him, maintaining his usual reserve and careful distance.
"No, no, I haven’t, not really. I’ve growled a little, but I haven’t bit."
Affliction, based on Russell Banks’ novel examining the roots of male violence, follows what happens when Wade breaks loose from his self-imposed leash. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it initially appears to be a story as simple as Wade’s life in rural Lawford, New Hampshire. A part-time law enforcement officer who picks up seasonal work, he maintains a steady, comfortable relationship with an undemanding waitress, Maggie (Sissy Spacek), who also understands the pleasures and perils of never leaving their hometown.
But as the frigid winter months begin in Lawford, a set of circumstances fall into place that eventually pull Wade’s hair trigger. One involves a mysterious accident in which a wealthy businessman is killed while out with Wade’s best friend (Jim True) as his deer hunting guide. The other is Wade’s misguided effort to change the custody agreement involving his daughter, who’s already sullen and resentful during their infrequent visits. It’s at this point that he’s hit, seemingly anew, by the horror of his own fearsome father (James Coburn). Age has not diminished the cruelty of this unrepentant drunk, who thrived on making his browbeaten family cower before unleashing the inevitable physical blows.
As a director (Hardcore, Mishima) and screenwriter (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Paul Schrader has dealt repeatedly with the nature of violence. In Affliction, he employs a beautifully minimalist, Zenlike style which lays bare the characters’ frozen emotional terrain – and renders Willem Dafoe’s portentous, "literary" voiceover superfluous.
In phenomenal, supremely lived-in performances, Nick Nolte and James Coburn (both Oscar-nominated) show how violence is the sleeping snake coiled around the spine of Wade Whitehouse, and how it was put there, in a commingling of nature and nurture, by his dear old dad.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].