My maternal grandfather, God rest his soul, was a real bastard. My mother, an only child, used to tell me stories about how Grandpa would, say, lock her in the closet when he found out she was afraid of the dark. A terrible thing to do to a little kid, even if my mother insists that it got her over her fear. Unfortunately, when she came to have children of her own, she adopted some of my grandfather's child-rearing methods--verbal abuse, mostly, but I've learned to respect the power of verbal abuse. Thus did "the curse" (as I call it) get passed down to the next generation...and the next. For if my mother was a bitch, which she surely was (but no longer is), I guess I'm a son of a bitch, although I doubt if many of my friends think of me that way. Somehow, I've managed to defuse the anger, send it shooting out in socially acceptable directions. (I'm a critic, for crissakes.) Even so, I made a promise to myself many years ago, a promise I still haven't broken: I would never, ever have any kids. I've taken you through my own tortured family history as a way of introducing Paul Schrader's Affliction, a movie that might as well be called The Curse, so perfectly does it capture the ties that bind--bind so tightly that they draw blood. Here, it's the sins of the father being passed down to the son, a wicked inheritance that keeps erupting in alcohol-fueled spontaneous combustions of domestic violence. Wade Whitehouse, whom Nick Nolte endows with both terror and pity, is a tragic figure--a middle-aged boy/man who's spent his whole life running from his father's hate-filled face, only to find it staring back at him in the morning mirror. Based on a 1989 novel by Russell Banks, Affliction is the kind of melodramatic subject that TV Movies of the Week are made out of, but Banks and Schrader burrow inside the material, uncover the wellsprings of fear and shame that feed domestic violence. Wade isn't a brute because he wants to be but because he can't figure out how not to be. When the movie opens, Wade's desperately trying to show his young daughter, who's visiting for the weekend, a good time. It's Halloween, and yet the little town of Lawford, New Hampshire, is already choking under a foot of snow. Maybe that's what makes Wade's daughter want to go home. Or maybe it's Wade's bipolar moods--too friendly one moment, not quite friendly enough the next. Whatever it is, she's soon gone, leaving behind a cloud of pain. Wade misses his ex-life, if not his ex-wife, misses it so bad he can barely see straight. Then, there's a hunting accident involving a friend of Wade's. Or is it an accident? A part-time cop, Wade investigates, and the evidence, if you want to call it evidence, leads to Wade's boss, a wheeler-dealer who's been secretly buying up parcels of land toward building a resort. Wade smells a rat. But is the rat out there somewhere, or is it scurrying around inside Wade's head? It's possible that Wade, like the Oedipus of Greek tragedy, is investigating his own demise. Nolte, who was just nominated for an Oscar, all but saws off the top of his skull so that we can see what's going through Wade's mind. And the amazing thing is that Wade's inner child is still in there, warding off blows. "I'm not a kid anymore," he tells his daughter early on, but he clearly is a kid--impulsive, irresponsible and sporting a toothache that's like an externalization of his childlike pain. (Even Wade's job involves working as a crossing guard at the school.) Layered over this inner child, however, is an outer adult, a raging drunk who lashes out at his loved ones, like a bear whose long winter sleep has been disturbed. Nolte, who does a beautiful job of blending these warring personas, incorporates the rumbling, grumbling verbal rhythms of James Coburn, who plays Wade's father. As a result of his father's beatings, Wade is both a victim and a victimizer. And, in one unforgettable gesture, Nolte brings that home, Wade punching himself in the jaw to ease the pain of his toothache. Nothing will ease the pain of that toothache except a mythic blood-letting, of course. (Wade is as doomed as Oedipus.) But Banks and Schrader offer us another response to domestic violence, one that many of us are more likely to identify with. Like the book, the movie is narrated by Wade's younger brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), who left town right after high school and never looked back. Affliction is suffused with Rolfe's icy detachment; it's in Dafoe's once-removed narration, in cinematographer Paul Sarossy's wish-you-weren't-here postcards of trampled snow, and in the cold, hard stare conveyed by Schrader's shot selection. Never the most emotional of directors, Schrader excels at buried emotions that won't stay buried. For, truth be told, Rolfe only thinks he got away. And Wade? He never had a chance. Wade has the great misfortune of being a sensitive brute--too brutish for his daughter and too sensitive for his father, who spent years trying to beat the sensitivity out of him.
To say the movie packs a punch is to steer this tragedy back into the realm of melodrama. Let's just say that, for too many of us, it hits awfully close to home.