A Cold Day in Hell

Paul Schrader's tale of a rampaging New England cop delves into the inferno of abusive masculinity

Named for the disease of male rage passed down through generations, Affliction isn't an uplifting movie by any standard measure. But it's a great movie and, accordingly, a rather cathartic experience for anyone with firsthand knowledge of the subject--not to mention for the men who made it. Based on the novel by Russell Banks, writer-director Paul Schrader's wintry howl of a film charts the familial chill between a father (James Coburn) and his grown sons (Nick Nolte and Willem Dafoe) as if forecasting the natural progression of a cold front across the plains. "By telling his story like this, by breaking the silence about him," says Dafoe's narrator of his older sibling, "I tell my own story as well"--at which point appears the credit "Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Schrader," signifying that the filmmaker has taken a page from the novel to tell his own story. If there's any hope to be found in Affliction, it's in the idea that a man's tragedy can become a constructive lesson to the one who interprets it.

Schrader's film could actually be considered the second account of his afflicted history to come out in the past year, after Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls laid bare the details of the auteur's proclivity for guns, coke, and other such manly vices during the '70s and early '80s. Although Schrader (American Gigolo, Light Sleeper) has taken issue with the author's version of events, he's quoted on the subject of his abusive father and older brother Leonard in a manner that uncannily befits Affliction: "'Leonard bore the brunt of my father's personality and in many ways he was crushed by it,' says Paul. 'But he helped me build up strength to confront my father. And I swore that when my time came to do battle with him, that I would not lose. And I didn't.'" Similarly, the surrogate Paul Schrader in Affliction--a mild-mannered and resilient Boston professor (Dafoe)--seems to benefit from the sad example of his temperamentally opposite brother (Nolte), a hotheaded cop in small-town New Hampshire whose violent activity threatens to destroy everything he touches.

Like the volatile masochists in the Schrader-penned Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Nolte's Wade Whitehouse in Affliction is the near-Neanderthal embodiment of aberrant maleness, a gushing font of paranoia with the wounded face of a child who's been beaten. Dafoe's Rolfe begins the film by announcing it as the story of his brother's "strange criminal behavior and disappearance," a tale that commences with Wade's unsuccessful attempt to convince his 9-year-old daughter (Brigid Tierney) of the reasons why she isn't out trick-or-treating with other kids on Halloween. "Whose fault is it, then," the girl asks, "if it's not yours? You're the one in charge, Dad." Perfectly captured in this first scene, the tragedy of Affliction is Wade's painful inability--inherited from his father--to carry out the basic duties of fatherhood. And the movie's pitch-black humor can be found in the fact that a 9-year-old girl in a plastic tiger mask understands more about her father's particular affliction at the start of the film than he will at the end of it.

Malestrom: Nick Nolte and James Coburn in Paul Schrader's Affliction
Malestrom: Nick Nolte and James Coburn in Paul Schrader's Affliction

Schrader's point is to show the cruel inevitability of this man's fate, recognized by his brother and his daughter (and the viewer), but not by him. As if to avoid dealing with his real, internal drama, the cop begins to become obsessed with a hunting accident that may be connected to a larger conspiracy involving his businessman boss (Holmes Osborne)--a classic case of the accused pointing the finger. If Wade sees enemies all around him, it's because that's what he grew up with, represented in home movies from hell of the young Wade and Rolfe being taunted and slapped by their vicious drunk of a father (Coburn, in a rampaging, almost mythic performance). Again, it's not that Wade is much aware of his condition. Rather, all he can do is seethe and suffer while awaiting his destiny, which Schrader half-parodically foreshadows through the image of the cop frozen stiff in the middle of directing winter traffic, his arms outstretched to suggest a kind of mock crucifixion--the crossing guard as Jesus Christ.

With its mood of quietly escalating tension broken by violent flashbacks and equally lacerating dialogue, Affliction is a hugely original piece of work. But if there's any film it resembles (besides Schrader's others), it's The Shining, another icy portrait of patriarchal horror set in a remote town during a snowy winter. Still, Schrader's picture is infinitely more humane, leavening the terror of Wade's mounting rage with a strong desire to keep the viewer aware of the story's finer points. (Where Taxi Driver is a tale told by its villain, Affliction has the benefit of perspective.) And Nolte--who, like Schrader and Banks (The Sweet Hereafter), has devoted his career to probing the darker recesses of the male psyche--succeeds in giving the movie a soul, albeit a rabid, lumbering, ignorant one. "You know I get to feelin' like a whipped dog some days," Wade growls at one point. "Some night I'm gonna bite back." Indeed, Nolte could have based his oddly sympathetic performance on the image of a sick animal scrounging for food and shelter along deserted country roads: Never has the actor's bulk seemed of less value to his character.

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