In 1997, a refined feature from one of America’s finest screenwriters dared to veer beneath the gleaming facade of the nation’s small towns. That film was Paul Schrader’s underrated Affliction, a searing examination of the complexities and problems prevalent in every community. Themes of family and alcoholism sit at its centre, placed within the compelling context of an enigmatic murder mystery. As such, the story unfolds in New Hampshire during deer hunting season, as past and present problems come into conflict.
Short-tempered, hedonistic and impulsive, Wade (Nick Nolte, Lorenzo’s Oil) is a man unwittingly in decline. His employment as a small town police officer is far from fulfilling, and his personal life seethes with issues of the most complex kind. Indeed, despite pure motives, his ex-wife and young daughter think he is a joke, his romance with Margie (Sissy Spacek, JFK) is waning, and his best friend is a drug-smoking twenty-something with no concept of responsibility. An unhealthy relationship with his abusive alcoholic father (James Coburn, Maverick) and a reliance on his younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe, The English Patient) for advice, only complicate matters further, with Wade’s life clearly lacking direction.
As such, Affliction unfolds two mirroring stories, one of adult Wade and his demons, and another of boyhood Wade’s struggles with his overbearing father. When a construction entrepreneur is shot whilst out stalking cattle, the parallel tales collide as Wade’s past, present and future depend on the outcome of the murder investigation. The unraveling of the crime mirrors Wade’s journey of self discovery, as the film brings his life to the forefront of the current events. The culmination of both sparks a crisis requiring his immediate attention.
Written for the screen and directed by Paul Schrader (director of Light Sleeper, and screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead), Affliction is a powerful character study of isolation and desperation. Schrader helms his films with a well-measured grace, allowing the narrative to unfold easily and authentically, and this is no exception. Nothing is rushed, and no details are overlooked, as he builds finessed yet flawed characters. Treating the source material with care and caution, he invests the feature with the depth of the original Russell Banks novel.
Nominated for two Academy Awards in 1997, with Coburn taking out the best supporting actor category, and Nolte nominated for best actor but losing to Roberto Benigni, the film boasts excellent performances from all involved. Nolte displays his particular talent for multi-layered characters, sparkling with quiet charisma on the outside but bubbling with inner turmoil beneath the surface. Coburn commands attention, his dependence on alcohol believable as every emotion is essayed, drink by drink. Further, Spacek shines with personality and energy, whilst, Dafoe presents his usual wry persona, with his detached, objective viewpoint narrating the events depicted.
Atmospheric and simmering with intensity, Affliction is an adult crime film that expertly doubles as a serious character exploration. Whilst stark and bleak like the bristling narrative its core, all elements of the story and those within it remain complete and cultivated, as it examines the weaknesses inherent within humanity. Exploring ideas of isolation and desperation, it grounds in drama in the impact of a lifetime of socially acceptable tragedy. Accordingly, the feature becomes a sombre yet honest and haunting effort, earning its outstanding reputation.
Though far from easy viewing, Affliction offers acute insights into American family life on the margins, including the problems of unconventional people and unconventional relationships, as complicated by normal human flaws. Nothing is glossy nor romanticised, with all that is presented a depiction of the harsh realities. With fantastic performances, an intriguing plot that marries character study with murder drama, and the influence of auteur Schrader, it remains as moving as it is confronting, and as astute as it is authentic. Quite simply, this is the stuff that American-produced dramas should be made of.