The thing that really bothers me about Affliction is that it could have been a really good
movie. Itís 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
Nolteís love interest and father, and Paul Schraderís 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 canít be denied.
Affliction is the story of how a small town sheriff named Wade Whitehouse tragically
self-destructs. Even when the story begins heís not doing too well; heís divorced and his
daughter, whom he rarely gets to see, doesnít really like to be around him. As a father and a
husband heís a failure, and heís not much of a cop, either--his main duties consist of plowing
snow and acting as a crossing guard, and heís not even very good at those. Wade also has a
terrible temper; actually, heís really in general a very excitable person. And pretty soon he
thinks heís 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 manís death, partly with the help of his brother, a strange, rather pretentious and
overly analytical man named Rolfe (Willem Dafoe). Rolfe doesnít 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.
Wadeís temper and his distrust of other human beings eventually alienates him from
everyone heís ever loved. And why does this happen? Well, thatís 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 isnít anything
terribly new or interesting about Wadeís 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 didnít do anything else really obvious or stupid. Unfortunately, it did. Here Iím referring
to the narration, which is one of the biggest recurring problems with the film. Dafoeís 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 Fordís narration) to the
Directorís Cut (without) and maybe youíll understand my frustration. Rolfeís 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 thatís just flat wrong: he claims
that this story is not just Wadeís, 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
doesnít even appear on screen until late in the film, and then he quickly disappears again. Most
of the time heís 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, doesnít 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 isnít 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?! Itís 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 donít want it to sound like Iím blaming this on Dafoe; heís a good actor and he does his
best. Really itís hard to tell who should be blamed for the failure of Affliction. Maybe the
editor--if heíd cut out all the narration and removed the last five or ten minutes, it would have
been a much better movie.
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