`Affliction' Suffers from Too Much Sociology

By Arnold, Gary | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

`Affliction' Suffers from Too Much Sociology


Arnold, Gary, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The determinism that saturates "Affliction," Paul Schrader's faithful movie version of a 1989 novel by Russell Banks, seems to be a point of pride with both filmmaker and author.

They make no effort to conceal the ulterior mythic and sociological notions behind this doleful account of a lost soul, Nick Nolte as a small-town failure named Wade Whitehouse. The name itself has a suspicious polemical ring.

A pitiful figure of authority in his bleak hometown, a rural dead end in New Hampshire called Lawford, Wade blindly reduces his life to shreds before coming to the realization that he can blame everything on his incorrigible brute of a father, Glen Whitehouse, a wickedly funny paternal monster as played by James Coburn.

This belated insight allows Wade to retrieve a measure of consolation by croaking the old reprobate, a tyrant whose very existence comes as a surprise: Early flashbacks of Glen's salad days as a wife beater and child beater create the misimpression that Papa must be long gone, and good riddance. If the bedeviled Wade doubts his justifications for patricide, he could consult Mr. Schrader or Mr. Banks.

According to Mr. Schrader, "Affliction" aims "to chart the waters of family violence, male violence that is passed down from father to son. The film begins somewhat deceptively and then sinks into that real black soul of American manhood. . . . This notion of male violence . . . is born in the blood, bred in the bone, passed from father to son. This is a very important theme. It is, in fact, the `affliction' of the title."

Dubious, murky generalizations also abound when we turn to the original author. "The patterns of your behavior are created very early on," Mr. Banks says. "If a kitten doesn't have human contact in the first two weeks of its life, it will become a feral cat and will never be able to contact human beings in an accommodating and comforting manner. In a way, Wade is like a feral cat.

"The equivalent of the first two weeks - that window of his life - was closed by the nature, personality and pathology of his father, and his mother as well, and the collaboration they created of their family life."

As portrayed by Mr. Nolte, Wade would be easier to equate with an abused guard dog than an asocial cat. Kind of an honorary cop in Lawford, he is dependent on odd jobs and handouts from the town's big shot, Gordon La Riviere (Homes Osborne).

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