If I were pressed to describe Affliction in one word, I think that word would be "difficult." Now, don't get me wrong, the film is a compelling, well-made portrait of man's descent into madness, but the tone and subject matter are designed to disturb, and that's exactly what they do.
Nick Nolte stars as Wade Whitehouse, the only policeman in the kind of small New Hampshire town where a lone policeman has enough time on his hands to also act as a school crossing guard and plow the snow off the streets. A hunting accident leaves a rich man visiting town dead, but the man who was with him - Wade's best friend Jack - didn't see it happen, so he assumes that the man accidentally shot himself. Wade thinks there is more to it than that, and that Jack may have killed him for money.
As Wade continues to think about the crime, he gradually loses more and more touch with reality. It doesn't help that since his mother's death, he's been spending more time with the abusive father (James Coburn in a brilliant performance) who has had more influence on him than he'd like to think. Wade never even sees it coming that he's turning into his old man. As Wade's delusion increases, his relationships with his daughter and his girlfriend (Sissy Spacek) deteriorate.
Nolte delivers powerfully in the lead role. It's a terribly difficult part to pull off, but he plays it with the exact amount of nuance that few actors can deliver. He makes us truly feel for Wade, especially during the scenes with his daughter, where he's just trying to be a good father, but he has no blueprint for good fatherhood because his own was so awful.
James Coburn plays the constantly-drunk father who has no need for anybody or anything except himself and his alcohol. The first time we meet the distant old man in the present day, he doesn't even need heat in his house - even if it kills his wife. Only as we learn more about the father do we learn more about Wade's affliction.
There is what I feel is unnecessary narration at a few points throughout the film. This is done by Willem Dafoe as Wade's brother Rolfe. Despite this, I know that this is what critics would describe as a "good" film, but I feel I can only recommend it to those who would like to trek into highly unconventional territory - the kind that digs under your skin and leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
January 29, 2005