Starring: Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Willem DaFoe, and Sissy Spacek
"Affliction" is one of those quiet independent films that seldom attract much attention on the American film scene. "Affliction" surprised everyone with two Oscar nominations for best actor (Nick Nolte) and best supporting actor (James Coburn). At the 1999 Awards ceremony, Coburn won the well-deserved Oscar. Considering the nature of the film and the disappointing box office, it's a sign of hope that this film received any attention at all.
Adapted from the novel by Russell Banks, Paul Schrader, writer and director, has created a gem. This is a character-generated drama about domestic abuse, alcoholism, and the effects on the adult children and maybe a bit about life itself. Schrader is not afraid to leave his viewers with some difficult questions to work out for themselves. This is a painful film to watch and one gets the uneasy feeling that you're listening in on one of those conversations that are too personal. Maybe you shouldn't be there.
The characters are linked by a brilliantly written narration delivered with an understated sadness by Willem DaFoe. The narration, the snow filled landscape and the somber but lovely score by Michael Brook set the tone from the beginning.
Wade Whitehouse (Nolte) is a "loser." He's the older of the two Whitehouse boys who grew up in a small New Hampshire town with a drunken son of a bitch for a father (Coburn) who wasn't a bit hesitant to beat the crap out the "candy ass kids" while the silent enabling mother sadly watches. Wade took the worst hits while the younger brother became very careful and got out of Pop's way during his daily binges. The abuse at the Whitehouse farm was no secret in the tiny town. Eventually, the younger son (Willem DaFoe) went to college, became a history professor and, hiding behind the fortress of Boston University, felt well protected from his haunted past. Wade, however, stays in the small town and seems content, as an adult, to just get by. He's likable enough, not academically bright yet not dumb. It's somewhat implied that he raised his share of hell as a teenager. A greedy businessman /town mayor gave Wade the job of part time sheriff and crossing guard and, when asked, he's even content to hop on the plow and keep the main road leading into the town clear of snow. Divorced with a daughter he rarely sees, Wade just copes. He drinks with the "boys," has a nice girl friend (Sissy Spacek), the waitress at the town's coffee shop, and tries, unsuccessfully, to have some communication with his uncooperative small daughter. Occasionally, he "vents" his life's problems, by phone, with his brother in Boston.
Two events set Wade off on a dangerous quest to face his past demons: a deer hunting accident and the death of his mother. He suddenly becomes an obsessed man desperately living on the edge of his emotions. Wade is heading for certain doom but the viewer, by this point in the film, is too involved to give up on him. Schrader keeps the tension building until the very end.
This kind of a highly personal film is difficult to make but Schrader has the talent to pull it off. Nolte reached deep down and gave the performance of his career. Spacek, Coburn, and DaFoe gave equally stunning performances. From the beginning of the film you lose sight of the fact that you're watching actors. Credit for this must be given to director Schrader. Grainy hand held photography by Paul Sarossy during the flashback sequences punctuates the tragedy of this dysfunctional family. Schrader keeps a dark moody atmosphere throughout the film, utilizing the white winter snow to great effect. This is not an easy film to get through but the rewards are many and Wade Whitehouse is not a man you're likely to forget.