Monday 1 April 2024

Mubi Monday: Affliction (1997)

If you're struggling to think of any film to watch on a very Catholic holiday, let's say you're not in the mood for something highly religious but you want something in line with the calendar, then I recommend one of the many films from Paul Schrader. They're all practically dripping with Catholic guilt, and you could argue that Affliction is up there with his very best/most intense.

Nick Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, a small-town cop who is struggling to maintain control of his temper, his life, and how his turbulent childhood and family life keeps crashing in to his present frame of mind, an unwanted guest smashing up the insides of his heart and mind. He is trying to keep shared custody of his young daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), ends up becoming suspicious of a hunting accident that involves a young man named Jack (Jim True), and only finds some solace in the company of Margie (Sissy Spacek). Things are about to get worse, however, when things happen that lead to him having to spend more time with his abusive father (James Coburn).

Based on a novel by Russell Banks, Affliction is a film that feels very much like a murky neo-noir for almost half of the runtime, albeit one that has Nolte being as typically gruff and dangerous as he has been in so many other movies . . . or maybe specifically because of that. It's easy to see why Schrader was drawn to the material - the tension throughout it, the exploration of the sins of the father reverberating through the lives of the sons (the brother of Nolte's character is played by Willem Dafoe, who also narrates parts of the film) - and he is helped by a cast who are all easily up to playing the ramped-up emotions of the piece.

Nolte is excellent, and this was at a time when he was on a hell of a run (the films themselves may not all be memorable, Nolte was brilliant in all of them). He veers between helplessness and misdirected rage with great ease, and his character carries both of those extremes around with him at all times, played like a physical weight on his shoulders. Dafoe is an excellent counter-balance, showing the image of a son who has tried to distance himself from a past that he knows could still endanger and harm him. Spacek gets to be a real sunbeam, someone and something that we know Nolte should be treating well enough to keep in his life. She knows who she is getting attached to, but she thinks that she can help him move forward while he spends too much of his time looking backward. Both True and Tierney are decent in their roles, as is Holmes Osborne (playing the town selectman, Gordon LaRivere), but all of them pale into insignificance under the looming shadow of Coburn's monstrosity. While Coburn doesn't have to be nuanced or subtle (and what "villain" in any Schrader movie is nuanced or subtle), he throws himself fully into being so loathsome, and as cruel as possible, that viewers will want to see him punished, no matter his advanced age and possible diminishing physical strength.

While it seems to explore anger issues, alcoholism, small-town business dealings, domestic violence, and much more, the main strand running all the way through this, to the surprise of nobody who has experienced any other Schrader movie, is guilt. Guilt for things not done in the past, guilt for things happening in the present, and guilt for any possible future created by the reverberations of those things. Not a film to pick when you want something disposable and distracting, Affliction remains worth your time when you're in the mood to observe the unravelling of a hurt person hurting people.


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  1. I'm trying to remember if I watched this back in the day but I'm thinking probably not. Even if I have it's probably worth a rewatch.

    This would fit in pretty well with the A to Z Challenges a lot of blogs (including mine) are doing today. I'm assuming that wasn't intentional.

    1. Completely unintentional, but happy to remind others of it.