Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Affliction (1997)

Domestic violence is disturbing, indeed! Especially when the head of the family, like a husband or a father turns out to be an abusive alcoholic who flies off the handle every once in a while and turns violent at the slightest of provocation! It is unimaginable what impact that might have on young minds, children of the person in question…how do the people at the receiving end of this affliction turn out?

Screenwriter/Director Paul Schrader’s surprisingly less known 1997 film “Affliction” touches upon a situation like this and chronicles the happenings in the life of one such “victim” as a seemingly unrelated incident in the small town he resides in ultimately results in a personal crisis of sorts for him.

Rolfe Whitehouse’s (Willem Dafoe) voiceover narration chronicles the events (from his own perspective) leading up to the disappearance of his older brother Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte). Wade is a police officer and part time security in-charge in a quiet little town. However, he seems to have troubles of his own..he is preparing to fight for the custody of his daughter Jill who’s currently with his ex-wife. He is also haunted by the memories of his traumatic childhood in the shadow of his abusive, perpetually drunk father Glen (James Coburn). He also feels for his mother who has had to suffer for years living with a man like that. His younger brother, Rolfe, on the other hand has managed to escape that world and move out, become a successful teacher in Boston University and live a good life.

Life seems to be decent enough for Wade, with his good friend and newfound romantic interest, Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek) who works at a local diner. Unbeknownst to him, though, some of his father’s violent streak seems to have rubbed off on Wade…which doesn’t manifest until much later after a hunting accident. Wade suspects that the hunting “accident” which took the life of a rich man by the name of Twombley, is actually murder, with some of his friends and colleagues involved in it. The incident is quickly followed by Wade’s mother’s demise which puts his father’s responsibility on him, adding to his woes, as Glen seems to show no signs of improvement with age, and makes life difficult for him as well as Margie. Wade finds himself struggling to stay afloat, trying to keep his job, stay in the good books of his daughter Jill, retain Margie’s affection, and somehow keep his father at bay…..but how much can one handle?!

Affliction” is, on one hand, a murder mystery and on the other, a profound character sketch detailing the difficult Glen Whitehouse and his son Wade who seems to be coming dangerously close to treading his father's ugly footsteps. The driving force of “Affliction” is some deftly crafted moments that manage to disturb you as you are left with no choice but to try and fathom how men could resort to such terrible behavior and what makes them so difficult to handle. None of the episodes come across as forced or unrealistic, at that, as these are the traits of real people. One can’t deny the existence of such traits in individuals belonging to perfectly normal families. Why does Glen drink so much? How does Glen feel absolutely no remorse after hitting women and children and relentlessly spewing abuses? And what makes the ones at the receiving end so tolerant? There are some highly intense moments in this bleak picture that make for some great drama, like the brawl during Wade’s mom’s funeral or Wade’s outburst when he suspects his friends/colleagues being involved in the “accident” of Twombley. The intensity clubbed with some powerhouse performances make for a great viewing. 

While James Coburn bagged the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his remarkable act as the grumpy old irritable father, Nick Nolte emerges a clear winner with his Oscar nominated, volatile performance as Wade, who is doing his best in his attempts at not being like his father and trying hold together his life that is steadily unraveling. It is a performance to watch out for, although one can’t deny that there were times when he seemed to be a tad Jack Nicholson-ish in his acting! That in no way takes any credibility out though, as your heart goes out to the hapless Wade, who’s clearly a victim of circumstance!

Others like Willem Dafoe, Holmes Osborne and Sissy Spacek appear very briefly. Dafoe’s voice appears more than his physical presence itself, which is a pity, but maybe the screenplay demanded Nolte’s character’s presence much more than anyone else’s!

Paul Schrader, a name not unknown to fans of Martin Scorsese classics such as “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”, pens a powerful screenplay based on the novel by Russell Banks and directs the same with the finesse of a master,  although Paul Schrader, the director, seems to be under-recognized amongst film lovers.
Do check out “Affliction”. It is a fine work of cinema that certainly is essential viewing for film lovers who like their dramas laden with intensity.

Score: 8/10