directed by Paul Schrader
(Lions Gate, 1997)

No one weaves a tangled tale better than Russell Banks, whose novel The Sweet Hereafter was brought to the screen two years ago with chilling efficiency by Atom Egoyan.

Now Banks is back, this time courtesy of director Paul Schrader, with Affliction, another tale of life and lack of love in the cold, hard North. Northern New Hampshire, that is, where town police chief Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is going through more personal and professional crises in one deer season than most people do in a lifetime.

The only thing more pathetic than his efforts to communicate with his daughter are his attempts to gain custody of her; he's passed over for plum assignments at work; and he just can't seem to get past the idea that his best friend has murdered the out-of-state official he was supposedly guiding on a hunting trip.

It seems Wade, like all Banks' protagonists, has something gnawing at him, something that won't let him be himself, or, even scarier, something that really is himself.

In Wade's case it's his relationship with his father (James Coburn), a drunken bully who's terrorized his wife and sons for as long as anyone can remember. Of that there's little doubt.

Of everything else, there is, which is one of the things that makes Affliction a compelling film. Early on it becomes apparent that Wade and his younger brother, Rolfe, have different memories of what went on years before in the Whitehouse household.

Who's right? We never know, just as we never find out what really happened to that hunter who died before the first deer fell.

Banks' work is less about what happens than about how people come to terms with it. It's also about point of view, and Affliction has plenty of that.

The film is told in flashback, not by Wade, but by Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), whose knowledge is mostly secondhand, the result of Wade's late-night phone calls. That makes the story even more difficult to follow, but no less rewarding, as Rolfe is a far more astute observer than Wade could ever be.

What he observes is distressing, to say the least: people who can't communicate, violence being handed down from generation to generation, the cruel in command of the helpless and no help for those who wish to end the cycle.

It's also hauntingly beautiful, in part because Schrader is an accomplished imagist who uses New Hampshire's bleak winter landscape to good effect and backs it up with an eerie score. Together, sight and sound make Affliction as much a tone poem as a narrative. On top of that you get award-winning performances from Nolte (Golden Globe) and Coburn (Oscar), matched stroke-for-stroke by Sissy Spacek as Wade's girlfriend and Holmes Osborne as his manipulative boss.

Yet somewhere, Affliction falls short of its mark. Perhaps it's the grainy flashbacks to Wade's childhood; the technique has become a cliche and the substance seems worn as well. Perhaps it's the need for heavy-handed voice-over narration; ultimately, Rolfe has to lay out the message because the story and the images so carefully etched in its telling can't.

What's left is a mixed bag: a powerful film with bravura performances and an important message that just can't seem to say what's on its mind.

It's good. But Banks and Nolte deserve better. So do their fans.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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