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AFFLICTION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe
Director:  Paul Schrader
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes, Talent Files
Length:  115 Minutes
Release Date:  July 6, 1999

Film ***1/2

Nick Nolte was thought by most to be the front runner for Best Actor at the Academy Awards for last year.  I found it interesting that the factor most working against him seemed to be the report that most Academy members were not making it all the way through their screening copies of the movie, finding the film just too depressing.  When I read that, I thought, “Wow, I have to see this movie.”

Both Nolte and James Coburn definitely deserved the accolades they received for their work in this picture.  This is a film that rests squarely on the shoulders of the characters, and the strength of the actors portraying them.  Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, a man who can only be described as a failure, for lack of a better word.  His marriage fell apart.  He tries to be a good father, but has no clue how to do it.  He is a law enforcement officer in a small town (the only one?), but he casually drinks and smokes pot on the job.  As played to perfection by Nolte, Wade is a man who seems to be brimming with confusing emotions, and one gets the feeling that not even he understands the processes that result in the actions he takes.

The biggest clue to Wade’s identity is his relationship with his father (Coburn), a big, brutish ogre who is shown in a series of flashbacks as always drinking, and always abusing his sons, both verbally and physically.  It’s clear that Wade, in his adult stage, has never quite gotten over those events psychologically. 

One gets the feeling that a confrontation is inevitable, but before that issue can be dealt with, Wade finds himself involved in a strange mystery, involving the death of a local man scheduled to testify against the mob.  It could be a simple hunting accident, but Wade slowly becomes convinced it is much more.  This aspect of the story is ultimately the least satisfying, as it never amounts to anything significant, other than Wade’s eventual undoing.  He’s already carrying a lot of anger inside him, and once his already frail life starts coming apart in big pieces, we know tragedy is eminent.

Is the point of the film the cycle of child abuse, and how it seems to inevitably manifest itself in some form in the abused?  Very likely, but I prefer to think of it as just a well told story with a few intriguing and strangely sympathetic characters.  The film is based on a novel by Russell Banks, who provided the literary basis for one of my favorite movies, The Sweet Hereafter.  I found both movies played out like good novels, with emphasis on characterization, motivations, profiles of personalities, and using the storyline to explore and expound the people involved.

Too depressing to watch?  No, but the film is by no means a pick-me-up, either.  It is a bleak, humorless tale with an unpleasant subject matter at it’s core.  But skipping over this movie would mean missing out on two of last year’s greatest performances in Nolte and Coburn, possibly the best of both of their impressive careers.

Video **1/2

Universal, for reasons unknown, forewent anamorphic enhancement on this disc, and though the results are not bad, it’s clear from time to time how much better it might have been.  There is not much in the way of grain or compression on this disc, but images are a little soft looking from time to time.  Most of the film takes place in snowy settings, so the effect is intentionally a little monochromatic. 

Audio **1/2

The soundtrack is a decent Dolby surround mix, without a lot of specific rear stage output.  The dynamics are fairly good, but a little too low in volume from time to time.

Features **

A trailer and some production notes and bios.

Summary:

Affliction is a powerhouse of acting, and achieves many moments of raw, honest emotion and genuine pathos.  It may not be everyone’s idea of a film to add to their library, but by all means, it should be viewed at least once.