A character study without compelling characters is doomed.
Affliction should be a winner and isn't. It has a marvelous cast: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, Mary Beth Hurt, Marian Seldes, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe. The opening scene is terrific: Against a haunting score, an empty road meanders through fields of frozen snow. We know immediately that we are in a small New England town where the snow line drops six months of darkness on the citizenry. We settle in for the telling of a good story. That's the problem--there's no story.
What's left is a character study, but even these sterling actors can't breathe life into empty people. Affliction echoes the acclaimed earlier work (The Sweet Hereafter) of novelist Russell Banks, who is absorbed by the politics of isolation. He delivers his observations at two speeds--frozen and slow. This movie may be a strong study of character, town, and climate, but there's a limit to the small-town darkness a moviegoer can be asked to endure. Mr. Banks asks too much.
Wade (Nick Nolte) is a cop who plows snow, tells trucks where to park, and guards the school crossing. He is also a man mired in resentment and comfortable with a deer rifle. Since he isn't an especially bright guy, he isn't sure who to blame for his troubles, so he takes his anger out on his ex-wife, daughter, boss, girlfriend, and bar pals. This man has no redeeming features.
And the others? Wade's girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek), has settled for the least offensive of the local losers only to find big trouble behind the dream. His father, Glen (James Coburn), is mean to the core, a genuine rotter. Wade's boss, speaking in an unidentifiable accent and bearing an odd set of motivations, seems to have wandered into the wrong movie. Tied to each other and to their dark roots, these characters are as uninteresting an assortment of washouts as you are likely to meet this year.
These people subsist on the lack of privacy that develops in rural isolation. Their only choice is to sink surely into the local manipulations that are the only distraction from their grim reality. Those who haven't fled by now need to prove themselves on a small playing field. What is there to do but lash out at the emptiness?
The principals deal with alcohol, child abuse, murder, hunting, rifles, arson, and a custody suit--the distractions that enliven life for a populace that won't see a ray of sun until next year. Locked into the damage they do to each other, they corrode.
A character study without compelling characters is doomed. These people aren't interesting; they're defeated, without hope of redemption, all living lives in various tones of dark gray. Says one resident of another, "Women like that, it's like they lived their whole lives with the sound turned off, and then they're gone." Well, those women, and their men, had no choice. We do.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 492
Studio : Lions Gate Films
Rating : R
Running time : 1h53m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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