Monday, August 31, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top 10 Films of the Year, #9 --- Affliction (Paul Schrader)

Paul Schrader loves making films about men who have complexes. These Schrader protagonists are never likable characters – oh, they try to be, but they try so hard to be pleasant that they come off as repugnant or annoying. And I mean that as a compliment to Schrader’s writing and directing skills. Schrader is one of my ten favorite American directors…probably of all time. His films have a hypnotic pull to them that suck you into their themes of loneliness and discomfort. He’s created marginalized and pathetic, eager-to-please characters before, but maybe none more uncomfortable to watch than Wade (a brilliant performance by Nick Nolte) in his 1999 film Affliction (adapted from the novel by Russell Banks). Wade is a ferociously inept man, a sheriff of a small New Hampshire town, who instead of standing tall behind his badge and gun shrinks back – slumping throughout his day from mundane project to mundane project – and he’s always teetering between being the overly-apologetic do-gooder or exploding in fits of physical and verbal rage. It’s what makes Schrader’s film so memorable; a perfect mixture of Schrader’s experience with male characters like Wade, and a performance for the ages by Nick Nolte.

Affliction takes place in one of those isolated snow-drenched Russell Banks towns (he also wrote the haunting The Sweet Hereafter which also focuses its attention on a small town) that aptly supply the metaphorical setting for these characters. Wade is cold and detached, and his father Glenn (the great James Coburn) is icy – his skin almost looking frozen over from all the hard years of drinking. Wade and his brother Rolf (played by Schrader regular Willem Dafoe, who supplies the opening and closing narration, giving the film an appropriate feel of family lore or mythology) were abused as children. Their father was a brute (we’re privy to this through town gossip and flashbacks filmed in 8mm), an abuser who drank too much and thought little of his wife. Their mother has died (unbeknownst to Glenn, another example of how little attention he paid to her) and thus brings Rolf to town to deal with the situation alongside Wade.

Prior to the death of their mother is another subplot that I dare not give too much information about. There is a murder in the town, an action that revitalizes Wade and briefly wakes him up from his reverie of loathsomeness and ineptitude. Instead of trying too hard to please his young daughter and not piss off his ex-wife (like anyone who has been abused or is an abuser Wade always make a public show about how he’s not hurting their daughter, despite the fact that he is verbally abusing her by being so abrasive and smothering) he focuses his attention away from his familial problems (his father included) – and a bugger of a toothache – and tries to solve the murder that has taken place in town. For the first time Wade stands tall, but unfortunately it all devolves into an orgy of paranoia and rage as the more Wade uncovers the mystery, the closer he becomes a brute like his father. That’s all I really want to divulge about the subplot because in a bit of inspired storytelling we learn a lot about Wade, his brother, and the town through the procedural parts of the film.

Nolte plays Wade as a man always on edge. There are countless scenes in the film (and really we notice it form the onset in a conversation with his daughter) where we are never quite sure if this is the moment where Wade loses it. There’s a horribly sad scene where Wade is having a really bad day, but is hanging out with his young daughter. He forces her to have lunch with him, and when they get to the bar to eat he is smothering her and mispronouncing the word “grilled cheese”. The bartender, aware of Wade and his family’s history with alcoholism, corrects him in a snide way and pays the price for it as Wade snaps and pulls the bartender from behind the counter and onto the bar…right in front of his daughter. It’s a scary scene that shows Wade’s imbalance.

And what better actor to portray the unpredictable Wade than Nick Nolte? Nolte has had a great career with characters that are kind of dumpy and always teetering on the edge of sanity, but I really think that Affliction, and his role as Wade, has been the acme of his esteemed career. It’s the perfect character for Nolte: Wade is a balance of a guy you want to root for because he’s so inept and clueless, but he just won’t let you because he makes stupid move after stupid move. In one scene of impressive acting Nolte brusquely walks into his father’s house right as Wade’s girlfriend Margie, played by Sissy Spacek, storms out. Wade doesn’t ask Margie what’s wrong, instead he grabs a bottle of alcohol from his father and proceeds to remove an achy tooth that has been driving him crazy throughout the film. It’s a repulsive scene because he repeatedly ignored his friends and Margie’s requests to get the tooth checked out, but Nolte plays it in the middle: he’s both maniacal in actions (I mean who the hell would do that?) and shows a bit of tenderness in the scene – the only way, it seems, he can feel anything is to inflict pain upon himself.

The reason why he is so numb and left to feel worthless is because of his alcoholic father Glenn. In an inspired piece of casting Schrader decided to go with B-movie actor James Coburn as Glenn. Schrader liked Coburn because he wanted someone who could tower over the already impressive presence of Nolte. Coburn plays Glenn with a detached eeriness, and we see signs of him in Wade as the film progresses. There is a moment where nothing has gone right for Wade, and we slowly begin to see him devolve into his father (though, he never makes the full transformation) as he witnesses Margie gathering her things from his house in an attempt to move away from the sickness that is Wade’s family. Wade has just returned from the botched lunch effort with his daughter and begins to forcefully hug Margie in a lame attempt to get her to stay. Wade’s daughter sees this as him “hurting” her, so she begins to attack Wade until he pushes her off, bloodying her nose in the process. After Margie leaves with Wade’s daughter Glenn comes out and smiles with approval as he claims that he always knew Wade “had it in him”.

Affliction is a haunting film that shows Wade’s inability to break the cycle of abuse. Banks’ other novel The Sweet Hereafter was also about parental abuse, although more cerebral than the bluntly portrayed alcoholic Glenn. Both stories show the ramifications of abuse on the victims and how they get their payback. In The Sweet Hereafter the daughter’s payback to her father was just as cerebral as his acts on her. In Affliction, though, the final act is fitting for someone like Wade. There is nothing subtle about Wade or Glenn, so it’s befitting that the ending to their story (as told by Rolf through the narration) is more obvious than in Banks’ other famous novel.

Schrader had a great year in 1999 with the release of Affliction and Bringing Out the Dead which brought him and Scorsese together again as collaborators. I’ve always had a special affinity for Affliction. It’s a haunting, contemplative film with a great sense of place. The small New Hampshire town feels authentic, and the actions of Wade (thanks to the acting by Nolte) never seem too “out there”. Schrader always has a way of basing his films in an uncomfortable realty that forces the viewer to really look at the character of these people we’re watching and wait until the end until we decide whether or not they’re bad people and are to blame for their actions.

There aren’t a lot of filmmakers who take the time to cover such heavy themes as Schrader does. He reminds me of Bergman in a lot of ways: he has a subdued aesthetic, he loves loftier themes that deal with the religious or existential, and he loves simple establishing shots with a static camera where the mise-en-scene tells us everything we need to know about what the characters are feeling. Obviously I don’t think Schrader has put out the amount of quality that Bergman has, but their films seem akin in certain aspects, and I fully embrace that type of patient and subdued filmmaking in this A.D.D. era of filmmaking. Affliction is a small masterpiece. There’s nothing flashy about it, but boy does it sneak up on you and knock you out with its power. It’s one of Schrader’s best films.

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  1. I wasn't the same person after I saw Affliction. I don't know if there is a more searing film about a legacy of bad fatherhood out there. Of course, I also can't think of a more depressing cinematic experience (another possibility is John Cassavetes' Faces), but I have never forgotten Schrader's film to this day. Coburn and Nolte both gave arguably the best performances of their career.

    The film also proves that Schrader really does know how to direct. Some screenwriters, most notably David Mamet and Steve Zaillian, make rather flimsy directorial debuts and careers, despite excellent screenplays. Schrader, on the other hand, really has learned from the past masters. That shot of Wade sitting in the house watching the barn burning? Dreyer would be proud.

  2. Adam:

    Thanks for stopping by! I agree with you: watching Affliction is not an experience easily forgotten. It was hard to re-watch again, but it despite its heavy themes I found it to be a very rewarding exercise because I had forgotten so much about the movie. Particularly Nolte's performance, which I always remember as being good, but I forgot how amazing it really is. You're right: Nolte has never been better.

    I like what you say about Schrader the director as opposed to people like Mamet (who I quite like as a director) and Zallian. Schrader has been able to take other people's screenplays (something that must be hard for a screenwriter) and make great films out of them without meddling with the ideas too much...and still be able to elicit the themes he wants. Auto Focus is a perfect example of that.

    I like what you say too about the shot at the end where Wade is drinking while the barn burns in the background. You're right in saying that Dreyer would be proud.

    Again, thanks for stopping by!