Written by Russell Banks and Paul Schrader
Directed by Paul Schrader
It took me several tries to get through this film. I’d tried to watch it once, and pretty much dismissed it when I learned that the movie was actually filmed in Quebec, instead of the a fictional small New Hampshire it is supposed to be set in. I’m very protective about movies that are set in New York City actually being filmed in Vancouver, and this ignited that same pet peeve. In the 15 years we’ve lived here, there has never been two feet of snow on the ground by Halloween.
Or perhaps my aversion to the film is being too close to the subject. No, I was not abused as a child. However, I have observed how abuse as a child manifests itself in the character of an adult as I look at my husband, knowing what his mother did to him for many years. Unlike the character of Wade Whitehouse in Affliction, he suffered mostly psychological abuse which taught him to lie and manipulate those around him to protect himself at all costs. I don’t need a film to show me the toll untreated abuse takes on an adult and the relationships he has with those around him.
Nick Nolte is Wade Whitehouse, a divorced father living in a small New Hampshire town where sometimes he’s a police officer, sometimes he works the plow, and sometimes he just hangs around drinking and getting high.
A series of flashbacks shows the life Wade and his brother had with his father, Glen, portrayed by James Coburn. Glen was mean when he didn’t drink and got worse when he did. The target of this meanness were his wife and children. Of all the children, only Wade resides near to their childhood home, although it seems that he doesn’t much visit either his father or his mother at the beginning of the film. The events of his childhood are shown through a series of gritty, grainy flashbacks, giving the impression of a bad memory from a long time ago.
The movie begins innocently enough as Wade is attempting to carve a relationship with his eight year old daughter, whom he has for Halloween. She is angry that she has missed out on trick-or-treating (even in two feet of snow) and calls her mother to pick her up when Wade abandons her at a town Halloween event to go smoke a joint with a few buddies.
One of those buddies, Jack, takes a prestigious man from Massachusetts hunting, who is then killed in a hunting accident. Wade has an uneasy feeling about the entire event, and believes there’s more to it than meets the eye.
He has a casual relationship with Marge, portrayed by Sissy Spacek, a woman he’s known for a long time. As he contemplates filing for custody and trying to start a new family, he brings Marge out to his father’s farm to check on them and finds his mother dead in her bed. The furnace isn’t working in the house, and it’s not clear to me if Glen allowed her to die from the cold, or if he couldn’t accept her death and kept the house cold to preserve her in the upstairs bedroom. Whatever the case, there also seems to be more to her death than meets the eye.
All these events collide together in one time period, and create a situation where Wade’s life spirals out of control. Instead of abandoning his father and writing him off, Wade decides he and Marge should move in with his father and take care of him. Not only is Wade again subjected to his father’s abuse, but Marge as well.
I guess I just don’t understand feeling obligated to a family member who has treated me so badly, for I would have reacted much the same way Wade’s brother Rolfe (Willem DaFoe) reacts which is to put as much distance between myself and my tormentor. There’s also a sister, seen only briefly for her mother’s funeral, who seems to have turned into a religious fanatic.
The rest of the movie was akin to watching a bad car accident as I watched Wade spiral further and further down and away from the likeable screw-up he was at the beginning of the film. I still don’t understand what all of the fuss was about the film, as to me it was downright depressing and nothing I would feel compelled to watch or recommend that anyone else watch.
I suppose the performances are good. Nolte gives a fine performance as Wade, definitely one of the better ones of his career. There’s no one even during the film that seems to change Wade, but a series of events which take an emotional toll on the man and cause his slow descent into the character seen at the conclusion of the film. Nolte makes this transformation believable, not having Wade act so over-the-top that he seems off the wall, except to those around him caught up in the swirling storm of his deepening insanity.
Spacek gives a good performance as the woman who loves him, but probably wouldn’t be with him except that her biological clock is ticking and there’s no one else around. When it finally becomes too much, she no longer can deny what is happening to Wade and what will happen to her if she stays with him.
Coburn is a mean ol’ s.o.b. here, but I found him to be pretty one-dimensional. How anyone in the town could talk about him with almost fond remembrances of what a mean drunk he was is beyond me. How Wade could listen to it without counteracting those memories with what actually happened in the home (unless it was already known and everyone in town was/is indifferent to the abuse) is also beyond me.
If you enjoy wallowing in other people’s misery, then I guess you will enjoy this film. I didn’t enjoy it at all, and found it not entertaining in the least. If you want to be totally depressed and feel that anyone who’s been abused as a child has no chance to ever accomplish anything with their life because of the ghosts that haunt them, then watch this film.