Affliction (1997)

by Victoria Mullen and Deb Havens

Nothing shrieks “isolation” like a miserably bleak, winter landscape. Set in a fictitious small town in New Hampshire, Paul Schrader’s Affliction offers absolutely no warmth or respite for sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) and those who people his life. Here is a cautionary tale of how one’s devastating childhood can destroy one’s future.

When we first meet Wade, he is in his patrol car driving his young daughter to a Halloween function at the town hall, despite her pleas to go trick-or-treating. It is clear that the relationship between father and daughter is distracted, distant, and disappointing. Narration by Wade’s brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), gives a sense of foreboding. This story is not going to end well.

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The sheriff’s uniform is deceiving: it bestows upon Wade neither power nor authority. His imposing physical presence does not shield him from an enormous burden; the man is weary and profoundly sad. Adding to his misery is a nagging toothache that just won’t quit. He self-medicates with alcohol. Despite the affection of his female friend, Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), Wade is unable to connect with her—or anyone else—on an intimate level. The reason soon becomes apparent. Wade’s childhood, shown in flashbacks, was full of abuse and a struggle to protect his younger brother. As the one person in the film who offers some promise of warmth, Fogg’s last name is apt; she seemingly can’t see—or, more likely, chooses to ignore—Wade’s character flaws, which are many and major.

For a brief time, Wade sparks to life. A parallel plot involving a fatal hunting accident fires Wade into action, and as sheriff, he makes inquiries, rattles the town’s big shots, but the spark soon fades as frustration and family duty intrude. This storyline underscores Wade’s misdirected instincts for justice and a doomed sense of what will fix his past mistakes with his family and job.

At one point, Wade and Margie travel to check on Wade’s elderly parents in the country and discover that Wade’s mother has died; it is unclear how long she has been dead. The house is frigid; it hasn’t been heated in days, and Wade’s father, Glen (James Coburn), is bundled up in sweaters and scarves. As with the house, there is no warmth in this man. 

The narrating brother, Rolfe, arrives in town for the funeral—as does a shadow of a sister—and the pieces fall into place: Rolfe has distanced himself from the family, but his idle speculations about Wade’s murder investigation carry way too much weight with his protective big brother; sis has turned into a religious fanatic whose daddy issues have been transferred to the Lord; Earth daddy Glen is a monster whose sole mission in life, it seems, is to stay drunk and abuse his family. When Glen pours and then licks a bit of salt off his hand—a casual mannerism we see Wade perform early in the film—it is a blow to the gut; Margie realizes in an instant what a future with Wade would be like, and she leaves abruptly with Wade’s young daughter.

The actors are perfectly cast. The big surprise is Coburn—this is not your mama’s fun-loving In Like Flint Coburn. As Glen Whitehouse, Coburn turns in an intense—and Oscar-winning—performance as a huge, hard-ass, drunken father who has bullied and terrorized his family all their lives. Only at the end do things finally heat up—literally. But the warmth is conflagration, not restorative, and certainly not redemptive.  

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When Paul Schrader said he wanted to screen this film during his visit here for the Visiting Film Artist Series (event data), he said it hearkens a Midwest sensibility. We should all be prepared to shiver at the thought.

Affliction screens at UICA on September 3, 2015 as part of the Visiting Film Artist Series with writer/director Paul Schrader.