Paul Schrader’s Affliction is a terrifying, tragic and too-real examination of how one series of events, dating back to childhood abuse, can spark the kind of self destructive downward spiral that no well adjusted person could ever thing themselves capable of. At the outset Nick Nolte’s Wade Whitehouse does indeed seem, perhaps mostly in his own eyes, to be a fairly well adjusted person. He’s an auxiliary lawman in a small New Hampshire community with a daughter, ex wife and set of problems that could be chalked up as ‘everyday variety.’ But just underneath that is a simmering layer of trauma and violence that inevitably will be unleashed, given the right set of catalytic incidents. Wade has a volcanically abusive father (James Coburn) who drinks like there’s no tomorrow and terrorized his family no end for years. Wade’s brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) distanced himself from the whole implosive saga years ago but when their mother passes away and the dynamics of their family as well as that of the town begins to shift, forces align against all of them.
This is a sad, heavy, fucked up, heinously bleak and relentlessly downbeat piece of storytelling, no fooling around. Wade’s trajectory is just painful to watch, from hazy flashbacks to childhood horrors inflicted by the old man to slow, steady signs of mental illness, delusional breakdowns and unstable behaviours manifesting gradually like an incoming blizzard. His relationship with his father is a poisoned minefield, his brother stays at arm’s length while his ex wife and daughter are resentful of him, perhaps scared or both. He has one solace in the girl he’s seeing (Sissy Spacek) but once she’s drawn into the whirlwind that is his life she too frays around the edges and is tainted by the violence, bad luck and pain surrounding it all. If this sounds like anything but a pleasant experience, it totally is and you’ll leave the room feeling like you’ve been slapped in the face repeatedly. But it’s an important, well crafted, intelligent, vital film that explores in uncommon empathy and understanding how a cycle of abuse, alcoholism, dereliction of compassionate behaviour and violence can ripple throughout generations like a sentient force all its own.
Nolte is sublime in this role, he’s an actor who always seems on the edge of an explosive outburst, always restless or shifting around, possessive of a deeply uneasy tone of voice and a guarded gaze. He rocks this role scarily well and it could be the performance of his career. Coburn is a tower of terror as the domineering patriarch, an imposing force in flashbacks now reduced to a frail, brittle and sour parody of himself in old age, constantly swilling booze, pissing archaic rhetoric like a toxic fountain and continuously displaying what the very worst traits of the male image look like. Dafoe is quietly powerful, present briefly in person and then in spirit with haunting narration, the black sheep of this clan in the best way possible. Spacek is so sad as the poor girl dragged into all this as it’s achingly clear she has deep feelings for Wade which she must abandon as soon as it becomes clear the kind of black hole he’s headed for. The cast is rounded out nicely with folks like Chris Heyerdahl, Brigid Tierney, Jim True-Frost, Mary Beth Hurt, Wayne Robson, Joanna Noyes and the excellent Holmes Osborne who we recall as Donnie Darko’s dad. This is a grim tale, as rough and cold as the inland terrain these people make their home, and for the family here there’s no way out of the cold, save for perhaps Dafoe’s character. It’s essential work though, a film that doesn’t doesn’t shy away from taboos that we ignore and banish out there with the howling wind, but rises up to meet and bear witness to such atrocities so that we may better recognize them in our own realm, and whittle away at the block of empathy and compassion in the face of such horror. A stone cold masterpiece.