The thing that really bothers me about Affliction is that it could have been a really good movie. It's got a good story (based on the novel by Russell Banks, the guy who wrote The Sweet Hereafter, an excellent film that I recommend you see instead of this one), with a lot of complex, interesting characters and lots of great actors to play them, including Nick Nolte, who has, with good reason, been nominated for an Academy Award for his stunning performance in this movie. Sissy Spacek and James Coburn also turn in great performances in their respective roles as Nolte's love interest and father, and Paul Schrader's direction is quite competent. Really the movie does so many things right that I found myself wanting to really like it, right up until the very end. But at its conclusion Affliction does something unforgivable, something that made me look back and realize that there were a lot of little flaws in the rest of the movie that I had been trying to overlook as I was watching it, just to give it the benefit of the doubt. But added together, all those little flaws, and that one big flaw at the end, build up to a rather large problem with the film as a whole that just can't be denied.

     Affliction is the story of how a small town sheriff named Wade Whitehouse tragically self-destructs. Even when the story begins he's not doing too well; he's divorced and his daughter, whom he rarely gets to see, doesn't really like to be around him. As a father and a husband he's a failure, and he's not much of a cop, either--his main duties consist of plowing snow and acting as a crossing guard, and he's not even very good at those. Wade also has a terrible temper; actually, he's really in general a very excitable person. And pretty soon he thinks he's found something to get excited about when a rich businessman is shot and killed during a hunting trip. Wade quickly cooks up a complex conspiracy/assassination theory to explain the man's death, partly with the help of his brother, a strange, rather pretentious and overly analytical man named Rolfe (Willem Dafoe). Rolfe doesn't live in town with his brother; he works elsewhere as a teacher. We get the impression that he has made something of himself. Nevertheless, he helps his brother Wade concoct the conspiracy theory, mostly during long, late night telephone conversations.

     Wade's temper and his distrust of other human beings eventually alienates him from everyone he's ever loved. And why does this happen? Well, that's one of the problems with the movie--Wade is like this because he was abused as a child by his domineering, sexist, drunkard of a father, a really hideous man named Glen (Coburn). How many times have we heard this story? Caught in a circle of abuse, the child becomes exactly like his father. Why create such a complex and interesting character and then simplify and explain away all his complexities with the cliched abuse excuse? Yes, I know the circle of abuse problem is a legitimate one, but movies have talked about it before in almost exactly the same way. There just isn't anything terribly new or interesting about Wade's childhood flashbacks. Glen is a completely evil character, a simple stereotype, and his stereotypical behavior stereotypically creates a son like Wade. How boring is that?

     But I was still willing to swallow this simplified, stereotypical abuse stuff as long as the movie didn't do anything else really obvious or stupid. Unfortunately, it did. Here I'm referring to the narration, which is one of the biggest recurring problems with the film. Dafoe's character, Rolfe, is supposed to be telling us this story, but his comments are intrusive, annoying, and totally pointless. Compare the original Blade Runner (with Harrison Ford's narration) to the Director's Cut (without) and maybe you'll understand my frustration. Rolfe's narration only states explicitly things which are more powerfully and effectively expressed implicitly by the action of the film itself. And at least once he says something that's just flat wrong: he claims that this story is not just Wade's, but also his own. Well, maybe that was true in the novel, but it definitely is not in this film. We learn little to nothing about Rolfe during the movie. Dafoe doesn't even appear on screen until late in the film, and then he quickly disappears again. Most of the time he's only an irritating voice that tells us too much about what we already know, and too little about Rolfe himself.

     The greatest sin of the narration, however, doesn't come until the conclusion of the film. I thought the movie had already ended when suddenly Dafoe began talking again, explaining to us in simple and corny terms the entire theme of the movie. I actually groaned audibly. It was disgusting, and totally unnecessary. And that isn't even the worst of it. After he unforgivably gives up the theme, Dafoe goes on to tell us about a whole bunch of other important events that took place later on, after the main events of the film. They actually kill off one of the more important secondary characters in this ending montage. Dafoe says something like, "Oh, yeah, and he died." What?! It's as if the filmmakers ran out of money, film, and time and decided to just tack on a summary of the rest of the story.

     I don't want it to sound like I'm blaming this on Dafoe; he's a good actor and he does his best. Really it's hard to tell who should be blamed for the failure of Affliction. Maybe the editor--if he'd cut out all the narration and removed the last five or ten minutes, it would have been a much better movie.

Jim Genzano

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