Nobody talks about Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) anymore, not since he disappeared. But his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) remembers him - cannot forget him, actually - and he remembers what caused Wade to tip over the edge. Wade was a sheriff of a tiny town in New Hampshire, but he didn't gain any respect from his position and most days would be left to traffic duty outside the local school. Tonight is Halloween, and he is taking Jill (Brigid Tierney), the daughter he had with his estranged wife Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), to a party even though she doesn't want to go and would rather be anywhere else than with her father, setting the stage for yet another humiliation for Wade...
Director Paul Schrader adapted Russell Banks' novel for the screen; his The Sweet Hereafter had also been adapted, but this was the superior film. Set in a snowy wasteland dotted with trees and buildings, the chill not only settles in the characters' bones but in yours with its tale of inescapable family corruption. The reason Wade is such a disappointment to not only his family and friends but himself as well is the stuff of pop psychology: his father didn't love him enough. But when you see Wade's father you understand there's truth in this thinking, as in an Oscar-winning turn from James Coburn the father is a towering shadow of poisonous ferocity dominating the lives of his offspring and his venom infects everyone who comes into contact with him.
Coburn is in a mere handful of scenes, but he ties with Nolte for running away with the film. Nolte matches him, playing Wade as a wounded buffalo of a man, blustering, staggering, struggling to stay on his feet in spite of the chunks life has taken out of his self-respect and standing in the eyes of others - only understanding girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek) offers any solace. When he realises that he may be able to redeem himself he seizes this opportunity with both hands. What has happened is that his friend Jack (Jim True-Frost) has been taking a client out hunting and the client has fallen and been accidentally shot dead. The client was due to testify in court against the Mob, so the question in Wade's mind is whether this is a genuine accident or if it was murder - and if murder it is, who is responsible?
Could there be a conspiracy reaching into the town council? That is what Wade begins to think, but really he is clutching at straws with hope at redemption blinding him to flaws that are growing ever more apparent. Rolfe, a passive presence on the telephone for half the film, believes his brother may be onto something too but eventually concedes the plotting is more in Wade's mind than anywhere else. The sheriff's grip on his sanity inexorably slips, and as it does his need to control something, someone, leads him into a morass of bitterness and resentment. When his mother dies, the woman who put up with his father's beatings just as he did when he was a child, his father has to move in with him, a man who makes no secret of his contempt for him until he finally lashes out and sinks to the violence that his hard-drinking old man did. There's a crushing inevitability about Affliction, weighing down the viewer with its despair and the fact that it's so well made doesn't render it any more palatable. The superb Nolte and Coburn are worth it, however. Music by Michael Brook.