If you were born into a violent alcoholic family, "Affliction" is the last movie you d want to see on a dark and rainy Monday night. Strong men who watch action flicks without flinching find "Affliction" a deeply painful film to watch. That said, the sight of Nick Nolte sitting very still on Oscar night, March 21, 1999, while many of his colleagues gave director (and friendly HUAC witness) Elia Kazan a standing ovation quite melted my heart. If Nolte had the guts to communicate such a powerful statement without saying a word or creating a scene, I HAD to work up the nerve to see his movie, which I'd been avoiding for a long time. Yes, "Affliction" is a very difficult story for an audience to experience. It is told by Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), the son of Glen Whitehouse (uncompromisingly played by the late Oscar winner James Coburn), a violent alcoholic father. Rolfe learned to detach as a child and he has remained detached as an adult.
His brother Wade (Nick Nolte) never learned how. Wade, a small-town cop, has been married twice to the same woman (Mary Beth Hurt as Lillian) and as the story begins, he is trying, unsuccessfully, to bond with his daughter Jill (Brigid Tierney). Jill wants to be with her Mom and who can blame her? Wade leaves Jill at a party and goes outside to wisecrack with his pal Jack Hewitt (Jim True). When he returns, Jill's already called Mom to pick her up. Wade is hurt, but leaves her to smoke a joint with Jack and arrives back at the party just in time to meet Lillian. There's a short verbal wrangle before Jill leaves with her Mom. Wade is thus suffering from the following: alcoholism, an agonizing toothache, a daughter he can only see on visits and who clearly doesn't want to see him, a girlfriend (Sissy Spacek as Maggie Fogg) who loves him but can't cope with his nightmare existence and many haunting memories of the beatings he received from his father as a child.
Think those stakes are rough? They get rougher. His mother dies as a result of his drunken father's negligence (Glen's too mean to keep the house warm in a cold winter) and Wade grudgingly accepts the responsibility of taking care of Dad. Old patterns are re-established, with deadly variations. Wade hires a lawyer to dig up dirt on Lillian so he can get custody of Jill. Oh, and there's an accidental hunting death in the woods and Wade suspects it's murder AND that his pal Jack may be involved. When folks who don't drink see how messy the lives of alcoholic families are, they may believe that all those pressures drove them to drink. As Schrader's hard-hitting screenplay and direction make exquisitely clear, it's the other way around. Maybe the only thing you can do is detach like Rolfe, but for 114 tortured minutes, Nolte compels us to see the world through Wade's eyes. Wade wants to be responsible and be a decent person, but like his father Glen before him and Glen's father before HIM and Glen's grandfather before HIM, he's too damaged to clear a path out of his smashed life.
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 11/27/02
USA - 1997