Nick Nolte delivers a ferocious performance as a man on the edge in "Affliction," Paul Schrader's sensitive and perfectly pitched adaptation of the Russell Banks novel.
As Wade Whitehouse, a well-digger and part-time policeman living in a tiny New England town, Nolte lends enormous heft and ballast to this human-scale drama, and his portrayal of Wade, which spans the spectrum of human emotion from roaring rage to howling, wounded pain, has landed him a deserved Oscar nomination.
But even while the audience's attention is riveted to this character battling his own primal flaws, Schrader makes sure that every other detail and performance rings true to the story's multi-layered power.
On one level, for example, "Affliction" is an old-fashioned murder mystery. When Wade's best friend, a would-be ball player named Jack, takes a wealthy union official out on a hunting trip, the jaunt goes awry. The union official winds up dead. And soon Wade is convinced his friend may be a murderer.
Wade lumbers into the investigation with elbows out. This is clearly his modus operandi, from dealing with his estranged wife and daughter (Mary Beth Hurt and Brigid Tierney) to his girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek).
Indeed, the only time this bear of a man seems cowed is when he's with his father, Glen (a tempestuous James Coburn), an abusive alcoholic who lives with Wade's mother in angry isolation on the family farm.
Soon, it looks like every event in Wade's life -- the investigation, his ham-handed attempts to manipulate Margie, even his sore tooth -- can be traced back to his childhood. That's when violence, fear and stymied rage conspired to create the man he is today.
With his bull-like presence, Nolte is all edgy passivity, as if the slightest hint of red will send him charging. Part of the terrible suspense of "Affliction" lies in waiting for that charge, which will surely destroy everything around him.
In an excruciating scene in which Wade pulls his own tooth, he resembles nothing less than a trapped animal gnawing off his own leg, trapped in a pain not of his own making, strong enough to free only part of himself.
Schrader, best known for writing "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" and an expert in portraying men living on the edge of their emotions, has brought Banks' novel to life with faithful sensitivity.
Admirers of the book will recognize immediately Wade's squalid trailer and the still snowscape of the New Hampshire winter. And even though Willem Dafoe appears only briefly as Wade's brother, who is more prominent in the novel, readers will recognize the cardinal themes of "Affliction": the mutability of memory, the past's stranglehold on the present and the cruel legacy of violence in men's lives.
Abuse narratives have become so chic these days it's hard to believe that an author or a filmmaker could bring something new to that groaning board (or to the groaning bored, for that matter). But Banks and Schrader get to a new kind of truth in "Affliction," one that transcends the usual dynamic of victimization and recognizes how rage and grief intertwine.
At one point someone describes Wade as the kind of person who "lives their whole lives with the sound turned off, and then they're gone."
"Affliction" turns the sound on with sudden, crystalline clarity, and echoes with the haunting power of a suppressed truth that has finally been released.
Starring Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe
Directed by Paul Schrader
Released by Lions Gate
Films Rated R (violence and language)
Running time: 113 minutes
Sun score: * * * *
Pub Date: 2/19/99