A Film written and directed by Paul Schrader
from a novel by Russell Banks
Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for such powerful films as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for director Martin Scorsese, and has directed a mixed bag of mostly self-written or adapted films including American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, Patty Hearst and the 1982 remake of Cat People, returns to the screen with an adaptation of Russell Bank's novel Affliction. As has often been true in Schrader's career, he takes on provocative and challenging themes but doesn't quite succeed in putting them across.
The last film adaptation of a Banks book, The Sweet Hereafter, was a qualified success. Canadian director Atom Egoyan managed to narrow the focus of the book to a scope manageable in a two hour film. In doing so, he had to discard a lot of potentially good material. Schrader doesn't seem to have the same understanding of the difference between a literary narrative and a film narrative. He allows the script to get carried away with extraneous details that leave the film wandering aimlessly.
It may be that Schrader has tried to recreate the novel too respectfully, including characters and situations that moved him in the book without being able to see that they just don't fit into the very different scope of a film. The result is a sense of several unconnected stories - or snatches of stories - being told at once, without any unifying intellectual or emotional thread.
The story is summed up in the tag-line, "Wade Whitehouse is scared to death of following in his father's foot steps." Wade, played with powerful understatement by Nick Nolte, is an ordinary, poorly-educated, guy who is almost totally without self-awareness.
He comes from a background of an abusive and neglectful family dominated by his alcoholic father Glen (played by Charles Coburn). In the midst of a divorce that depresses and confuses him, an estrangement from his young daughter he finds totally incomprehensible, the death of his gentle victim of a mother and a crisis in his work that demands he look at himself in a new way, he comes apart. It is a wrenching story, an evocation of the brutality and meaninglessness of a certain strata of American life, somewhat in the spirit of Death Of A Salesman.
But the basic narrative trajectory is intruded upon, muddied and blurred by elements that only serve to confuse the issues. The voice-over narration by Wade's younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) - who has inexplicably escaped from the intellectual poverty and emotional excoriation of his upbringing to become a college professor - adds layers of what is meant to be exposition, but instead of clarifying and supporting the story, it raises distracting questions that turn out to be completely pointless.
In one scene, on the phone with the confused and depressed Wade, Rolfe creates a whole scenario in support of his brother's suspicions that an apparently accidental death may have been a murder. Later, in voice over, he casually but categorically disowns the whole notion, leaving the viewer at a loss as to how to reconcile this particular sub-plot.
And this returns us to the primary failing of the film: there are too many things going on, in too many different directions. There is the divorce/custody/ex-wife subplot. There is the estrangement from the daughter sub-plot. There is the coping with the suddenly-widowed, alcoholic father subplot. There is the healing the relationship with the gentle, loving, girl-friend, Margie (Sissy Spacek) subplot. And there are more. They just keep coming.
Of course, this is a lot like real life - it is messy and unpredictable, and there are always lots of loose ends. But what happens in real life doesn't always work on film. In a novel, the author has plenty of time to play with strands that go nowhere in themselves, but somehow provide perspective on the main narrative. The same thing can be done of film, but the technique has to be used much more sparingly and with great discipline.
Schrader does not demonstrate a workable perspective on how much digression a 113 minute film narrative can support before it disintegrates. And disintegrates is the perfect word. The loss of identity the word implies is exactly what happens to Wade, but unfortunately, he is upstaged by the disintegration - loss of a unified focus, of connection between elements - of the film itself that is going on around him.
Nolte has been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance here and the nomination is well-deserved. It is relatively easy to communicate vivacity, intelligence and charm on the screen. It is a much more daunting task to represent dullness, insensitivity and emotional aridity in a character and still make him sympathetic. The opening scene, where Wade awkwardly tries to communicate across the barriers that separate him from his daughter is beautifully acted and truly excruciating.
Yet he is let down by the script. The kind of subtle breakdown he is trying to communicate here, the kind of undramatic - because of being so divorced from the whole world of feeling - character he is trying to portray, becomes impossible in the midst of all the extraneous goings-on with which Schrader has seen fit to encumber the film.
The other actors do a good job with the strong parts of the script, but are left hanging by the weaknesses. James Coburn is sinister and intimidating as the abusive and angry father, but the character is brought too far into the spotlight to be left at that, and yet never allowed to create the additional dimension he needs to round out the portrayal.
Sissy Spacek is mostly wasted as the good-hearted but not-too-bright girlfriend who tries to support Wade, but is ultimately unable to cope with the depths of his damage. Her character isnŐt given enough space to make either her affection or her desertion as powerful as they ought to be. Schrader spends so much time and effort following pointless lines of action or introducing inconsequential characters that he doesn't have enough left over for her.
Willem Dafoe drops into the rustic, inbred little town like a creature from another planet. How he turned out so completely different from his brother, why he is so blind to what is coming, why he does so little to prevent it (or does he subtly encourage it? - it's not really clear) are all important questions that never get answered. It is difficult to tell if his disaffected, lifeless performance is a character choice or a result of his demoralization as an actor.
The production values are reasonably good for a film that was shot for less than 7 million dollars. There are some problems with color continuity in the exterior shots of light on snow - one of the fastest and most subtly changing light conditions that exists. The camera work generally gives a sense of the enclosing, claustrophobic interiors that very cold climates tend to create.
Unfortunately a dialect coach does not seem to have been within the scope of the budget. Speaking as one who lived for several years in the part of New Hampshire where the story takes place, I found the notion of these supposed natives speaking with flat mid-western (Nolte and Coburn), twangy southwestern (Spacek) and even nasal Brooklyn (Dafoe) accents distracting and false. If the actors couldn't do New Hampshire they should have moved the location to Michigan.
This is an ambitious film that tackles a tough question: the persistence of psychic damage within families. Unfortunately, as in most of Schrader's previous solo outings, once having addressed the question, he doesn't quite know what to do with it.
Schrader has proved himself a talented screenwriter and his most successful directorial projects have shown a promise that has never quite fulfilled itself. This film too, falls short of creating a focused, fully evocative work. Still, there are some very good moments and some fine performances that make the film worth seeing with all its flaws. I look forward to Schrader's next effort in hope that he will eventually be able to grasp the kind of meaningful film-making toward which he is clearly aspiring.