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 (author of the bleak novel-to-screen beaut The Sweet Hereafter), 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. So 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: Wade’s brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), moved away as quick as he could and is now a college professor (the story unfolds through Rolfe’s narration, as it does in Banks’ ominously clean and clear prose); his sister, briefly seen, has fled for comfort to born-again Christianity; and Glen’s boozy stupor has literally frozen his wife to death. And still the old man drinks and rages, and taunts Wade, who develops a toothache so agonizing it seems to inflame his every nerve. ”You! I know you! You’re my blood!” curses Glen to his son, a self-fulfilling imprecation.

The blueprint for tragedy, then, is set. 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 — those who try to help him, or love him, or stop him from hating. 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, writer-director of American Gigolo and Light Sleeper — 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. (Cinematographer Paul Sarossy, who also shot Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, sensitively captures the regional blue-gray light — the light of seasonal depression.) A conversation between Wade and Jill in a car on a farmhouse road distills an uncomfortable father-daughter dynamic — the girl small and miserable, wearing a pathetic plastic tiger mask for Halloween, the man unable to keep child-scaring bitterness from seeping through his attempt at heartiness. A conversation in bed between Wade and Margie effortlessly conveys intimacy — and Wade’s distraction. Flashbacks to the childhood abuse the Whitehouse boys suffered, seen in the muted colors of a grainy, hand-held home movie, tell us everything we need to know about the family legacy. Throughout, a celestially eerie score by Michael Brook tracks the action, keeping even the most violent of moments in perspective with the big picture.

The big picture, in the end, is that 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. A

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