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Wednesday December 30, 1998

     Novelist Russell Banks, filmmaker Paul Schrader and small-town New England cop Wade Whitehouse are soul mates in a tortured hell on Earth. Each of these middle-aged men is haunted--in ways either real or imagined, physical or psychological--by violence, and each has devoted much of his life to trying to fathom his relationship with his father.
     With the intense, almost overwhelming "Affliction," a movie adapted by Schrader from a novel by Banks about a character named Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), all the anger and resentment built up in the first two men are transferred to the third, leading to an emotional meltdown and an explosion of homicidal rage.
     Rarely have a novelist and filmmaker been better matched. In their separate mediums, the 57-year-old Banks (author of "The Sweet Hereafter") and the 52-year-old Schrader (screenwriter for "Taxi Driver") are true auteurs, using their art to confront their own demons, and, in doing so, finding career-fulfilling outlets for their pain.
     Wade Whitehouse, alas, doesn't have that option. In fact, he doesn't have many options to anything. He's the broken-down product of a broken-down childhood, a man whose ability to trust and form strong attachments to others was crushed while growing up in the small New Hampshire town of Lawton by his abusive, alcoholic father (played in flashbacks and present tense by James Coburn).
     Wade's brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), who is the narrator of "Affliction," escaped his father's wrath, as younger sons often do, and moved away in early adulthood to become a college teacher and reasonably normal person.
     No such luck for Wade, who is anchored to Lawton, to his past and to his father. As we join him decades later, he is barely functional: as a ridiculed part-time cop and school crossing guard; as a divorced father whose 9-year-old daughter (Brigid Tierney) is wary of him; as the noncommittal lover of sympathetic waitress Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek). He can't even take care of himself, allowing an abscessed tooth to go untreated for so long, the pain eventually compels him to yank the offending molar with his own pliers.
     That toothache is a metaphor for Wade's life ache, and as madness gradually overtakes him--and as he investigates a hunting accident as a murder and conspiracy that only he can solve--it's only a question of which will erupt first, his abscess or his fury.
     This is a great performance by Nolte, the best of his post-Hollywood, post-movie star career. It's not easy to watch. Wade is one of the most pathetic figures to reach the screen in years. Yet he is a heroic figure, out of a Greek tragedy. He does confront his monsters, particularly his monster of a father, and though the film supplies no definitive answers, he seems to find a certain peace for himself.
     Nolte seems a sure bet for an Oscar nomination, and there's a strong push for Coburn for best supporting actor, as well. Coburn is convincingly menacing, but totally unconvincing as the younger man in the black-and-white flashback scenes. Coburn is 70 and looks 70, both with dark hair in the flashbacks, and with stringy gray hair in the contemporary settings, and we'd need some of that Canadian whiskey he swallows between breaths to accept the illusion.
     Still, "Affliction" is one of the year's strongest dramas. Schrader, a lapsed Calvinist who's written some of the boldest scripts of his generation, knows something about the dark side of the human soul, and directs Nolte as if he were looking into a mirror.

Affliction, 1998. R for violence and language. A Largo Entertainment production, released by Lions Gate Films. Producer Linda Reisman. Writer-director Paul Schrader. Cinematography Paul Sarossy. Production design Anne Pritchard. Editor Jay Rabinowitz. Music Michael Brook. Costumes Francois Laplante. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse. James Coburn as Pop Whitehouse. Sissy Spacek as Margie Fogg. Willem Dafoe as Rolfe Whitehouse.

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