He undoubtedly went through some kind of hell to get there, but Nick Nolte has emerged, in middle age, a magnificent interpreter of the American man as tragic antihero. In ”Affliction,” Paul Schrader’s masterful, heartfelt adaptation of the beautiful, bleak novel by Russell Banks, Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, a rinky-dink police officer in his gloomy, snow-choked New England hometown. Wade’s cop duties essentially begin and end with playing schoolbus crossing guard — he stops traffic with his arms held out as if crucified, a man nailed by crappy fate. He also holds down another job, doing odds-and-ends chores for a local businessman.
And still he’s left with plenty of time to stew over the mess he has made of his own stunted life. Wade’s ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) has remarried, to a richer man, and moved away with their daughter, Jill (Brigid Tierney), a shy and forlorn girl who can’t wait to return to Mom when she’s sent to spend time with Dad. He’s got a decent thing going with the diner waitress Margie, his supportive girlfriend (glowing, womanly Sissy Spacek, exposing fascinating layers of character, from patient lover to fed-up defender of her own dignity), but her love doesn’t keep him from brooding, resenting, and — most crippling of all — drinking.
Anyhow, Wade comes by the tradition honestly. His elderly father, Glen (James Coburn, in an autumnal star turn of gut-kicking force), is a destructive, abusive drunk who has terrorized his family all his life. ”Affliction” is about how a father’s meanness and violence and alcoholism can afflict a son, who may in turn spew it on those around him. It’s also about how Wade decides to sue his ex-wife for custody of their daughter, and about a hunting death in the snow, and about the moment in a man’s life when it’s impossible to run any faster from demons.
In other words, it’s a movie made for Schrader, specialist in banged-up machismo — writer of Scorsese’s ”Taxi Driver” and ”Raging Bull” — who has hit, in this exquisitely shaped, paced, painted, and edited production, a new, deep level of artistry. In snowy, primally American images, in scenes of plain anger, anguish, or violence that match the starkness of a New England landscape, Schrader lets internal fury build to its fiery climax.
”Affliction” — a beautiful bummer, a magnificent feel-bad movie — is American filmmaking of a most rewarding order. With it, Schrader makes a leap from a history of confused productions — ”Cat People,” ”The Comfort of Strangers” — to a new clarity of directorial vision. And in it, Nolte, digging deep within, pulls out the meatiest performance of his career. His once-pretty face now ravaged, his once-blond hair now dark and cut like a New England planting field, his body a map of lumps and knots, Nolte owns Wade Whitehouse. Come March, I’d be happy if he owned an Oscar for his pains, too.