Either I'm a dimwit, or "Affliction" is a subtle piece of work that builds slowly upon the foundations it establishes early on. I hope to God it's the latter because I take my Civil Service test tomorrow and I want more than anything to get out of the gas station. I want one of them cushy jobs sorting mail at the Goddamn post office.
For the first half hour of "Affliction" I sat there thinking, okay, movie people, time to stop boring me now. Let's see some tits or you're getting two fingers. What writer-director Paul Schrader delivered was in some ways better, and in some ways not. "Affliction" was better because it built real characters and then slowly let them tear themselves down.
It was worse because it didn't show hard nipples glistening with sweat. I'd love to see a movie that does both, like one about a woman who loves to go around naked and masturbate all the time while she searches for her long-lost father, or something. That's not "Affliction," but maybe Schrader will do my idea next. I guarantee Oscars and big box office. (If you're reading, Mr. Schrader, please hire a lead actress with big boobies.)
In "Affliction," Nick Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, a jack of all trades in small-town New Hampshire. He's a crossing guard, a policeman and snow-plower. This is the town in which he grew up and everyone has always known him and his skeletons. He wants to be a good father to his estranged daughter, who is a little frightened by him. He's also trying to overcome the burden of violence and alcoholism that his father's shadow has cast on his life. In addition, the pure evil that is Pops (James Coburn) didn't do so much for giving him life skills. As decent as he wants to be, he was never given any usefull lessons by his soused pappy.
When an influential Massachusetts man dies while out hunting, Nolte suspects foul play and a plot by the town's wealthiest people. He pursues the case to prove himself to the town, to himself and to his daughter, only to find that he can't shake the legacy of his dad. Sort of like how I still have a bunch of plaid pants my father gave me, and he demands I wear the ugly sons of bitches at family gatherings.
I'm no fan of Nick Nolte. That goon is always in movies that actors love and everyone else hates. You know, the ones where everyone stands around and says big important things to each other that some playwright wet himself over when he wrote them. Nolte is usually in the thick of it, hamming it up like the world is depending on his intensity. In "Affliction," writer-director Paul Schrader keeps him under control. There are a few of those lame-ass overly dramatic moments, but Nolte convincingly portrays a man slowly giving in to the inevitable.
And that slow descent is this movie's best feature. It's like when Henry, who used to do oil changes for us at the Ralston Amoco, went fucking bonkers. First, it was little things like him putting crankcase grease down his trousers, and then came the big stuff like trying to eat a carburetor. The change was so gradual that it took us a while to figure it out and stop eating lunch with him. Nolte doesn't go crazy, but as he feels himself losing what he wants, he starts grasping. And as he grasps, he becomes his father. He knows he's doomed himself, but he doesn't even want to fight it anymore.
It shows us two things. One, that it is damn near impossible to avoid the lessons our parents taught us, no matter how fucked-up they are. Two, it teaches us that Coburn became an asshole through the same process and probably against his will.
Coburn is a mean son of a bitch. Goddamn he is a bastard. I totally bought into his evil because it was so pure and unadulterated. As a fully-developed person he is hard to accept because there are no shades to his cruelty. But, as an icon of evil, and what Nolte is trying to get out from under, I bought it hook, line and sinker.
Four fingers for the first sad movie of 1999. Remember, Mr. Schrader, I have now scratched your back. Next time, you scratch mine (with big knockered hoochies).