Snow. Wind. Emptiness. The first images in Affliction are white and desolate. They show late October in small town New Hampshire, and Halloween is descending on frigid, early evening streets. They also show what’s going on inside Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), nominal local cop, who’s trying to convince his visiting 10-year-old daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), that she’ll have a fine time at the local costume party. Jill wears a plastic tiger mask, the kind that makes your face sweat even when it’s cold out. She resists, frets, and finally retreats to her dad’s office to call her mother (Wade’s ex-wife Lillian, played by an appropriately chilly Mary Beth Hurt). By the time mom arrives, Wade’s been out smoking weed with his buddies, and by the time Lillian and her new husband arrive in their Audi, Wade is collapsing, transmutating into a mushy mass of resentment, rage, and machismo.
As this introduction intimates, Wade’s affliction is vast and multifarious. Apparently in his late forties, he’s bewildered by his life failures, lost in a chilling downward spiral; alcoholic and full of anger, he seems somewhat appalled at his anger, the noxious thrust and muscle of it. The film directed by Paul Schrader and based on a reportedly autobiographical novel by the splendid Russell Banks takes you inside Wade’s confusion by increments, beginning with a voice-over by his literature-professor brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe, who some years ago played Schrader’s light sleeper) and closing with a sequence that builds tension so exquisitely that it hurts.
Rolfe’s narration allows you a bit of calculated distance, at first. “This is the story of my older brother’s strange criminal behavior and disappearance,” he says, slowly, Dafoe’s trademark deliberate tone seeming to decelerate events even as they take place on screen. Living in Boston, Rolfe suggests that his understanding is limited, but at the same time he figures he’s smarter than Wade (he’s escaped, after all, while his older brother remains trapped). “In telling his story, I tell my own as well,’’ he says, but he hardly comes into the film, except briefly, to help Wade work through his theory that a hunting accident involving his friend (Jim True) and a rich union boss, is in fact a murder, covered up by wealthy land developers (one being Wade’s employer, the scummy LaRiviere [Holmes Osborne]).
Wade’s speculating seems pretty clearly rooted in his insecurity and resentment, he’s looking for targets and reasons for his inadequacies. But the film offers images of Wade’s several scenarios, leaving you somewhere between his and Rolfe’s interpretations of events they haven’t seen. The question is, what is Rolfe’s interest in telling this tale? Why is he deciphering his brother’s life?
Rolfe comes to town for their mother’s funeral, which ends up the occasion for a bleak and wrathful family gathering, punctuated by flashbacks that reveal the depths of their father’s cruelty. Played with an astonishing, brutal immensity by James Coburn (he seems almost to loom over Nolte in one or two scenes, and Nolte is not small), Glen Whitehouse is a total ogre, perpetually drunk, ugly, and abusive. While Rolfe (meek and frightened in the flashbacks) has left his cold hometown behind him, Wade has remained, paralyzed. And on top of everything else, he has an increasingly debilitating toothache.
The first daylight scene shows Wade genuinely immobilized. He’s wearing a thick winter hat with flaps, directing school crosswalk traffic. Suddenly, inexplicably, he’s caught up short, captured like he’s in a movie’s freeze-frame, overwhelmed by his own thoughts. The sight is surreal, but makes a weird and implacable sense, like whatever it is that Rolfe is trying to figure out about Wade’s actions has more to do with Wade’s inability to act than anything else. It’s here, in this bizarre instant, that the movie begins in earnest to explore Wade’s logic or more precisely, his illogic born of a self snarled in fear, anxiety, and paranoia.
From here on, the movie uses Rolfe’s narration to sketch some standard plot parameters, but the uncomfortable sense of dread you’re developing right about now is a function of Wade’s gradual, relentless loss of parameters. Paul Sarossy’s canny camerawork makes the super-wide expanses of whiteness feel claustrophobic, and their harshness is matched by interiors cramped with dark wood furniture, where characters hide out, as if waiting for the winter to be over. Like they’re hibernating.
Wade’s lifelong hibernation his repression of the churl that he is, the creature that his father made him is coming to a necessarily violent end. His is a story about masculinity as pathology. Wade’s loss of bearings is precipitated by several factors (or at least that’s how it looks as Rolfe is piecing the story together in hindsight). First, he’s afraid to lose Jill to Lillian’s sniffy superiority (after all, she has escaped from her former life, from Wade’s sucking chest-wound of neediness). Second, he’s afraid to commit to his diner-waitress girlfriend Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek). Even when he asks her to marry him, their tender, playful exchange is also fragile and sad. Nolte is getting well-deserved attention for this performance (and for his furious corporal in The Thin Red Line); Wade seems like he’s in a constant state of confession, as if he’s too exposed and brittle to withstand his own brainstorms.
But Spacek is frankly incredible in an underwritten part (Schrader has never been comfortable writing women). Quietly loyal and patient, Margie’s willing to appreciate Wade’s warmth and vulnerability, at least until she sees him in the same space and mood as his father. The mirror image is so disturbing that Margie/Spacek actually shrinks back from Wade’s touch, then wordlessly steals from the room, turning herself into a small background movement, while Wade lurches around in the foreground.
This is a stunning scene, and not only because it leads to one of the more horrific self-mutilations I’ve seen in a movie, when Wade determines to pull out his offending tooth with pliers. What’s remarkable about the scene with Margie is that her recognition of what’s in literally front of her becomes yours, and even though you know it’s coming, it’s still startling. The camera stays with Wade. But eventually, it refinds Margie when Wade comes back to himself. She’s outside, small and resilient against the snowblasted farmscape, refusing to give in to him, to the narrative to which he and Rolfe and Glen have all given themselves up. Margie makes her choice, and it’s devastating.
Like many filmmakers, Schrader has been making versions of the same movie for years. Unlike many filmmakers, Schrader’s film has gotten better over time. Affliction shows a new maturity and patience with his material and his images. Always concerned with sexuality, violent masculinity, repression, loveless but desperately passionate existences, his movies (including those he’s scripted, like Taxi Driver, as well as those he’s written and directed, like Patty Hearst or Cat People) have been accused of being difficult, cold, alienating, this film achieves these same qualities but brings them alive. Rolfe’s alienation is indomitable and smooth-surfaced, while Wade’s is rough, a torrent. It’s rare that a film is so visceral, not by what it shows but by what it implies: the violence is certainly visible and even explosive, but it’s not so moving as the uneasiness you share and absorb. This is bone-chilling.