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Saturday, June 24, 2000

'AFFLICTION'

No brakes along the road to disaster


It's only October and already the roads are slick with snow, breath comes out in thick, white gusts and people are hunched into overcoats, worrying about their boilers. Cold and all its implications are the driving force behind "Affliction," the story of a sad little life that snowballs into a major tragedy.

"Affliction" is based on the Russell Banks novel which means, among other things, that a happy ending is not on the horizon. Banks is one of the most compelling American storytellers of our time, choosing for his subjects such things as violence, poverty, abuse and other habits that are hard to break. Director/screenwriter Paul Schrader (who authored the screenplays of "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull") knows too well how such habits take hold and won't let go, and the long, gentle arc traced by a life going down.

Together, they spin a tale of despair, the kind of despair that comes with inadequate heating, bad jobs, cars breaking down in the middle of a wind-swept nowhere. Individually, they are simply hard-luck episodes, but pile them up one after the other and it's enough to make a grown man weep.

"Affliction" documents a few wintry weeks in the life of Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), a sheriff in a dead-end town called Lawford, N.H. In Wade's view and in his memories, Lawford is always whirling with snow -- a bleak backdrop to the many painstaking labors that make up his life. As a child it was chopping wood and shoveling snow, now in middle-age it's directing traffic and shoveling snow. It goes without saying that Wade is an unhappy man. His marriage to wife Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt) is in smithereens, he rarely gets to see daughter Jill (Brigid Tierney) and his toothache is killing him.

But Wade has plans to turn all this around. He will marry his waitress girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek) and build a stable home, work harder at law enforcement and win joint custody rights so that he can finally bond with Jill. Sadly, Jill couldn't care less. One of the awful moments in this picture (and there are many) is when she turns to her father and says: "Dad, I love you, OK? We don't have to see each other."

Watching Wade is like watching a character in a Greek tragedy. Or a King Lear in galoshes. Dark clouds gather wherever he goes, the gods seem to conspire in making him suffer. Women look at him with that stricken, panicked look, and leave. Still he blunders on, determined somehow to emerge triumphant. And all the while, he's making toothache noises.

"Affliction" reveals Wade's real problem with a series of shaky, flashback vignettes: His father was an abusive oaf (played with ferocious intensity by James Coburn) and as the eldest child, Wade bore the brunt of his sadistic anger. All the other siblings left town as soon as they could but Wade remained, mainly because of a denial mechanism that kicked in whenever he recalled the more painful events of his childhood. Wade swears he won't be like the old man but the resemblance is there: the way they both stash liquor all over the house, the odd habit of sprinkling salt on the palm and licking it off.

Running parallel to Wade's story is a hunting accident. Deer season is one of the few times Lawford comes to life and this year, state government official Evan Twombley (Sean McCann) is in town with local handyman Jack (Jim True) as his guide. But scarcely an hour after they head for the woods, Twombley turns up dead. Jack insists it was an accident but Wade has doubts. Suppose this was murder. Suppose Jack and some government big shots are in on it. Suppose Wade uncovers the plot and makes some sensational arrests -- then he'd be a hero. This is how Wade's mind works, but no one believes his rantings.

No one, that is, except his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe). Rolfe encourages Wade's murder theory as a way of taking his mind off Jill but he hasn't bargained for the way the murder, Jill and a cozy home life with Margie all link together in Wade's mind. Failing at one sets off a chain reaction of other failures and there's nothing to do but watch in anguish as Wade is sucked into a vortex of violence that carries the story full speed to its desperate conclusion.

But "Affliction" is not completely depressive. Wade does get a taste of triumph, even though it is private, and witnessed by no one. In the midst of all the mental torture and heartbreak, he slays a dragon. If this was ancient Greece, they would have named a constellation after him, one shaped like a man in a lumberjack shirt, clutching a swollen jaw. Everyone in the movie tells him to "get that tooth fixed" and by the last reel, you'll be saying it too.

"Affliction" opens today at Cinema Qualite in Shinjuku. Paul Schrader's autograph will be presented to 10 random viewers at the first screening. Call theater for details at (03) 3354-5670.


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