Affliction (1997)
April 26th 2023

Writing in the Village Voice in January of 1999, Amy Taubin stamped Affliction, Paul Schrader’s latest celluloid tract, with high praise indeed: “If there’s any justice in film history, it will rank with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver .‌ . . as an American classic.” The winter release was fitting insofar as the weather would’ve complemented the film’s deadened chill—a product of its being set in a whited-out little town in New Hampshire—though the timing indicated a vote of no confidence on the part of Lionsgate, the distributor. Despite admiring reviews, Affliction had been more or less benched since its 1997 Venice premiere; now, after 16 months, it was being dumped like so much inconvenient snow.

This adaptation of Russell Banks’s 1989 novel stars Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse, the lone cop in the fictional Lawford. Underemployed and unfulfilled—he stands in a neon-vested daze at the school crossing, arms outstretched and head cocked like some petty Christ—Wade fixates on the death of a visiting union leader, chalked up by the townsfolk to a hunting accident. His determination to prove foul play stems from an assumption, unspoken but all too palpable, that doing so would redeem him in the eyes of those who’ve written him off. (So far, so Schrader: take a shot.)

Wade’s theory, forged with some prodding by his dispassionate brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), is that the dead man is a victim of a Chinatown-esque scheme by a local entrepreneur to transform the backwater into a ski resort. Alas, the lumbering sleuth fails to recognize that he’s much less a Jake Gittes than an Evelyn Mulwray: he too is in the thrall of an abusive patriarch—here, an alcoholic played by ex-gunslinger James Coburn, in venomous form and sounding quite a bit like John Hurt. The Whitehead men form a sorry Trinity: Wade, the martyred Son to Coburn’s Father; Rolfe, a teetotaller who has removed himself to Boston, a Holy Ghost.

Schrader, the foremost bard of God’s lonely men, first sent the script to Nolte in the early nineties, when the actor was a hot property—enough so that, in 1992, the then 51-year-old was crowned People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” A decade later, a mugshot would permanently recast him in the public eye as a GHB-fried, Aloha-shirted old coot. Because Nolte took five years to sign on to Affliction, the film captures him at the precise midpoint of these milestones, right when the veneer of the “big-lug Adonis” (as per People) was starting to harden and crack. You can just about pinpoint his crossing of the psychic Rubicon to the scene in which a frenzied Wade yanks out his own tooth with a pair of pliers. (Go on, that warrants another shot.)

Affliction screens tonight, April 26, as well as April 28 and 30, on 35mm at Roxy Cinema. Its director, Paul Schrader, will be in attendance for a Q&A after Friday’s screening.