This hard biting “Affliction” was written and directed in 1997 by a familiar individual within this series, “Paul Schrader”. Who if you remember, wrote and directed “Hardcore” (1979), as well as famously collaborating with Martin Scorsese in creating two cinematic classics, “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980). Each of these films all having similar thematic insights, in how “men’s violence is churned up by feelings of inadequacy”. Interestingly enough, Paul Schrader also wrote the screenplay for Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988, in where Jesus cries out to his father in heaven, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”. Conveniently, we could perhaps use this chilling line as the thematic question in relation to “Affliction”, as this is clearly Schrader’s intentions.
As well as these listed connections, “Affliction” is ultimately derived from a novel by Rustle Banks, who also inspired fellow director Atom Egoyan to produce “The Sweet Hereafter” that very same year in 1997. Much like the novel “Affliction”, Schrader’s motion picture focuses on the story of a small town in the midst of an eerie, harsh winter and how the education of violence and abuse is instructed down from father to son through the means of alcohol. It’s the afflicting pain that Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) keeps on enduring after years and years of abuse from his father, Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn), that has made Wade feel utterly worthless and has transformed him into one of life’s local losers, “he drinks, he smokes pot on the job, he walks with a sad weariness, he is hated by his ex-wife, and his young daughter looks at him as if he’s crazy”. This doesn’t leave much to be desired in regards to Wade Whitehouse as a husband, as a father or as the town’s sheriff. In fact, he is pretty miserable at everything he does in life, and his unhappiness comes as a result of being “controlled by fear of his father”.
Thematically, this isn’t the first time Schrader has chosen to base his writings on such bleak issues and ideals. With “Affliction” we can certainly identify Schrader’s interests with a certain kind of human behavior, centering the film around his own personal sympathies for a character that drifts through life trying to find meaning and worth, “the subject that is of most interest to me deals with a man who drifts around, often at night, peeping into other people’s lives. He is without a life of his own, and is trying to figure out how to get one, often operating against his own best interests in trying to find it”.
Wade’s dysfunctional characteristics are precisely what Schrader is focusing on in “Affliction”, celebrating an uncivilized and totally incompetent male. A subject that is not widely popular within the film world; an industry which 99 percent of the time focuses on the suave and competent. Only few writers and directors can pull this off as a respected piece of art. Schrader is one of these elite.
Schrader’s selection of characterization is a familiar point of view we can recognize in abundance within his writing. For example, Julian Kay in “American Gigolo” (1979), and Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (1976), each characters were wrote by Schrader (one for Martin Scorsese) and they highlight this correlation and “sense of continuity of experience”. Another example would be the character Le Tour in “Light Sleepers” (1992), both written and directed by Schrader, describing his film as the “third installment of a certain character, a voyeur, a drifter. He hasn’t made anything of his life, he doesn’t know what will become of his life”, which sounds very much like our good friend Wade in “Affliction”. These specific roles and dramatic aspects that Schrader investigates within his films draw us into the stories narrative with ease because we know from his unorthodox obsessions what is going to be in store before we’ve even started. We can perhaps assume this is not going to be a film that occupies complicated plot lines, or consists of characters who we commonly think of as hero’s and can easily identify with. Instead, Schrader creates his films in such a way that it makes it so much more difficult to define, perhaps a “reflection, memory, yearning, an inability to look forward— in short, a kind of stubborn, obsessive melancholy”.
As a result of this, the plot of “Affliction” is extremely minimal. Despite Wade’s many shortcomings in life, he does hold enough nature to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek), maybe out of a deep and meaningful loyalty she has for him, or perhaps just sympathy, who knows. However, what we do know is that his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) constantly complains about his failings and looks down at him, and his daughter, who he obviously loves very much, isn’t enough to bring meaning to his life, as he disappoints her time and time and again and has a difficult time even listening to what she has to say. His brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) has all but abandoned him, after wising up and getting out before the town infected him also, with this sense of insignificance and worthlessness. Willem Dafoe is also the film’s voice over and narrator, Wade’s ‘literacy brother’. Thus making the film “not so much about the plot, as about it’s teller”. The narrator tells us immediately that “this is the story of my brother’s strange criminal behavior and disappearance”, so we know straight away the conclusion of the story. This is the ultimate plotline, Wade’s gradual decay into total insignificance. Ironically, Wade’s complete downfall is instigated by his brother, Rolfe, when he returns home to attend their mother’s funeral.
Just prior to the funeral, a wealthy businessman, a union official, who is on leave, is shot or shoots himself while hunting for deer in the fields near the small country town. Wade, being the town’s sheriff, feels the need to make the most out of this case, considering nothing this exciting ever happens around there. He’s more likely to be holding up traffic for the school bus’s than investigating a murder or suicide. Perhaps focusing on this shooting scandal is a means of escaping painful memories of his father abusing him, a distraction from his wife always moaning at him about late payments, his alienation from his daughter, or perhaps just his own insignificance. This case offers some meaning to his life, a focal point of some relevance, and all of this commotion perhaps goes to his head which causes him to become deluded in seeing himself as a hot shot detective. When really he’s not even a good cop.
Nonetheless, his cause isn’t helped by his brother, Rolfe, who decides to offer the “worst possible advice in the world, thereby sending him down the road that otherwise could have been avoided”. Knowing full well, the extent of his brother’s problems, Rolfe regardless tells Wade of a conspiracy to cover up the murder of the wealthy union official which leads Wade on a quest to solve this non-crime that didn’t even happen. In fact, this will be Wade’s final quest to his own self destruction.
All of this because of Rolfe’s brief and passing whim, “there never was a conspiracy; it only existed in Wade’s wild imaginings and briefly in mine as well”, the brother says at the end of the film. A whisper, that lead to crushing thunder, and which ended in deafening silence. As Rolfe so solemnly puts, “I remain to tell this story over and over again”. This is perhaps evidence to us that this story was never about Wade, or his insignificant life, this was about the misleading path Rolfe set out for his brother, a tale of an inaccurate myth which ended in death for Wade, and inexhaustible guilt for Rolfe.