Paul Schrader, the man who’s been fighting the Hollywood system ever since he got his hands on a pen and paper and wrote Taxi Driver to chronicle his own experience as a depressed and lonely cab driver, is now entering a new phase in his life following the success of 2017’s First Reformed and the growing popularity of his latest project, The Card Counter. I want to take this opportunity to shine a light on what I consider Schrader’s best and perhaps most personal piece of work despite it being based on someone else’s material. His Oscar nominated film, Affliction (originally a novel by Russell Banks) is one of the most powerful portrayals of family-inflicted violence and trauma and another atypical addition to Schrader’s long catalogue of ‘God’s-lonely-man’ characters.
The story of Wade Whitehouse and his inevitable downfall is, although perhaps not clear at first sight, another example of Schrader’s fascination with the theme of alienation. Despite the story being set in a small New Hampshire town and revolving around a tight knit community of church-going people, Affliction deals with the kind of alienation and feverish anxiety that the characters of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and John LeTour (Light Sleeper) experience in the metropolis that is New York City or Julian Kay (American Gigolo) in Los Angeles.
In this case, Wade Whitehouse (played by an exceptional Nick Nolte) is also a man haunted by a tragic past, a man who’s been trained to cover it up, smile and nod as the good people of Lawford file out of church service. He’s the local cop, the local crossing guard, the local handy-man, etc: in short, everybody knows who Wade Whitehouse is. His father, Glen Whitehouse (a fantastic late career turn from James Coburn who won an Academy Award for his performance), was and still is the town drunk and a mean son of a bitch. Wade, unlike his younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) who escaped the family’s grip and set up a new life in Boston, is chained to Lawford and to his own family blood.
Schrader’s trick in making this by-the-numbers set-up of a man slowly yet surely walking toward his own destruction works because he knows what he’s talking about. Having grown up in a small Calvinist community in Michigan with an up-bringing strictly focused on religious principles and family-oriented education, Schrader is able to transmit the claustrophobic feeling that our protagonist has been experiencing since the day he was born. Surrounded by town drunks and abusive fathers, Schrader conveys the seemingly simple surface-level manifestations of PTSD as Wade begins to crack with each passing minute.
In essence, Wade is a good man. That’s the whole tragedy of the film. He’s a good man who wants to make things work. He wants to make his daughter happy although he hasn’t the faintest idea about parenting. He wants to make the city a safe place and be loyal to the citizens of Lawford even though people around him treat him like dirt. Less than dirt. He wants to have a normal love life, but he keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. He wants to rid himself of his tyrant of a father, but something deep down tells him to be there for him, no matter what.
Whereas Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle was an unstable sociopath wanting to cleanse the earth of sinners, Wade is intent on beating himself up over someone else’s errors. Schrader, however, blurs the lines between the two characters by boxing in Wade Whitehouse into a society of close-minded people. Even in a small town like Lawford there is corruption, greed, murder and abuse. Townspeople are at each other’s throats, keeping receipts over who owes what to whom, and whose father did what and when. And Wade is no exception. He cannot seem to shake off the generational abuse and addiction that was strapped on his back when he was little kid. Early on in the film, Wade goes into a bar for a beer and has to listen to some young punk telling someone a story he overheard about Wade’s father drunkenly abusing his two sons. Wade’s suffering is common knowledge in Lawford.
And although Paul Schrader as a director has never been known for his eye for detail, Affliction is a film that feels lived-in. It feels like it was forged and chiseled in the snowbanks and pine barrens of New Hampshire. Even a secondary character like Margie Frogg (played by Sissy Spacek), Wade’s love interest and the only person whom he is not afraid of letting into his life, exists on her own, rather than serving the sole purpose of comforting Wade when he needs a good word or two. Her reality is separated from Wade’s, as the film follows everything through Wade’s hazy point of view merging past memories with present events, seeing things that might as well not be there for anybody else to see besides Wade.
Throughout the entire film, Wade is haunted by a painful toothache. Nolte’s performance is tapped into this constant, dull pain that does not let up, slowly building over the course of the film. His smile turns into a grimace. He walks hunched over, broken physically as well as spiritually. For a big guy (and Nick Nolte is one hell of a big guy), Wade sports a rather timid figure. The only thing that sets him apart in a crowd of people is the ticking time bomb inside of him. The slide into darkness is inevitable as he begins to take care of his dad following his mother’s sudden passing.
Given that the film opens with Wade’s brother narrating the following passage – “This is the story of my older brother’s strange criminal behaviour and disappearance. We who loved him no longer speak of Wade. It’s as if he never existed,” – we know that what we’re about to witness is something of incredibly mournful nature. It’s as if we’re plunged into a world that is no longer there. As if someone dropped us right into a faded postcard. In a way, we feel powerless. Wade’s destiny is sealed. We know how it ends, and yet Schrader wants us to consider how generational abuse and violence take their toll on somebody who could have had potential, could have been well liked and respected. Could have been. But wasn’t. And what’s worse is that Glen Whitehouse doesn’t see any of this. Wade’s booze-soaked father doesn’t have interest in Wade’s pain. The only interest he has is in using that pain to his own advantage and turning his son away from the few people that care about him. In a town like Lawford that’s the end for anybody.