Schrader Does Domestic Male Violence

by Donato Totaro Volume 3, Issue 4 / April 1999 6 minutes (1293 words)

Affliction is a powerful account of domestic male violence and a man trapped within its vicious circle. Nick Nolte is the trapped man Wade Whitehouse, the town’s part-time sheriff and all-around handyman, and son to Glen Whitehouse (sublimely played by James Coburn). The elderly Whitehouse sends the spiral of domestic violence backwards a generation when he mutters that his father was a “real man” and “in those times women knew their place … there was no confusion”. In some respects Wade is different from his father, for example in the softer moments with his waitress girlfriend Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek). But his suppressed violence becomes sublimated in delusional thoughts of grandeur. The film, structured as a flashback voice-over by Wade’s younger brother Rolfe Whitehouse (Willem Dafoe), presents a narrative McGuffin, the hunting death of a rich Bostonian in suspicious circumstances. Was the death really an accident or a professional job sponsored by the victim’s greedy son-in-law and the local land baron, Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne)? Wade becomes embroiled in this mystery, eventually entwining it in his mind with his boss LaRiviere’s plans to convert the town into a ski resort. But the film’s true mystery is that of genetics, and the passing down of male violence from generation to generation. And the victims are the generations of intimitated women that, as Margie Fogg says of Wade’s mother, “lived their lives with the sound turned off.’‘ As such the Affliction is as trenchant a critique of patriarchy to come out of the US in years. The incisiveness of this critique is due in large part to the excellent performances of the male players, most notably Nick Nolte and James Coburn, who in their scenes together tossle for physical dominance like two wild animals staking for territorial claim.

Affliction is based on a novel by Russell Banks, whose novel The Sweet Hereafter adapted to the screen by Atom Egoyan also scoured small-town neurosis. The film is stylistically reserved, as if contained by the sleepy, wintry setting, and emotionally underscored by Michael Brooks’ plaintiff guitar-dominant score. Like Atom Egoyan in Family Viewing, a film which also deals with male generational differences, Schrader uses a different shooting style to separate the past from the present. All the flashbacks to Wade’s youth are filmed in a grainy, slightly underexposed stock (either blown 16mm or video-to-film). In these flashbacks Coburn acts younger, more imposing, and treated as such with low angle framing that places us in the overwhelmed position of young Wade and Rolfe (played of course by child actors). Like in the earlier and underappreciated Light Sleeper, Schrader’s shots are held longer than average, but just shy of calling attention to themselvea, an interesting and mannered use of the long take that captures an unusual cinematic rhythm somewhere between Hollywood and art film pacing.

Though in the final scene he does seek recourse to the full-blown long take, borrowing a page from Andrei Tarkovsky (although in an interview he conducted with Alexandr Sokurov, Schrader has admitted, guiltily, that he doesn’t like Tarkovsky as much as he probably should). Like Alexander (Erland Josephson) in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, though to a different end, Wade has reached a self-destructive end. He has lost his job, alienated himself from his friends, daughter, and last remaining ally, Margie Fogg, to be left alone with his aged, senile, sociopathic father. After an argument with his father, Wade goes into the barn, but his father slyly follows him in and knocks Wade to the ground by a blow to the head with an empty wine bottle. Nolte erupts and retaliates against the pathetic, yet still violent father with a vicious shovel blow to the head, killing his father in an ironic attempt to end the cycle of male violence. As the self-willed Alexander did to his house in The Sacrifice, Wade sets his father afire and calmy leaves for the family house across from the barn. In a brave static long take of approximately two minutes, Wade sits at the kitchen table with a bottle and glass, as his father and forefathers had done countless times, while the barn, perfectly framed through the kitchen window, burns in the background. Like in The Sacrifice, there is a car in front of the barn that also catches fire and explodes.

This shot – as in other scenes in the film – is an excellent example of what film philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls in reference to depth of field images, “sheets of the past.” Deleuze feels that in most cases where depth of field is necessary, there is a connection to memory. This memory link is not necessarily literal, as in a flashback, or through psychological imagery, but an attempt to evoke a memory out of an actual present or “of the exploration of a sheet of past from which these recollection-images will later arise” (Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 109). Deleuze expands “sheet of past” to include characters, so that each character can also represent or carry their own sheet of past which may overlap with those of others. So in this particular shot Schrader plays off the background and foreground in terms of Wade’s own personal history and memory. In the background we see the barn and the terrible monster father burning within it; in a complete instance we see represented the obliteration of Wade’s violent past, or that which represents it. While in the foreground Wade’s posture at the table, the bottle and drink in his hand suggests the possible continuation of the violent past. The past/future contained in a shot of staggering emotional power. Schrader comes close to topping this penultimate scene with another long take of equal duration, one in stark contrast to the static nature of the former. Lifting another page from Tarkovsky, this time Mirror, and shot in the film stock associated with the flashbacks, a hand-held camera roves through the empty family house, searching for remnants of the past in family photos, empty chairs, lonely corners, finally settling on the skeletal, charned remains of the barn -a vivid metaphorical image of “charred memories.”

Throughout this inquisitive moving camera shot we hear Rolfe’s voice-over, the professor of history, the intellectual-as-narrator, informing us that the facts are now in, but that “facts do not make up history.” Some critics have questioned the validity of this voice-over, feeling that it merely reiterates what is already evident in the visuals. But Rolfe’s cold, distanced voice is meant to counter the emotional imagery and give the film a pretend sheen of objectivity that veers precariously close to dogmatism (though some feel it has crossed that line). One could argue this as a weakness in the film. Still, we do learn from this voice-over, as confirmation of the previous scene, that Wade has disappeared and that he may one day be found as a wandering derelict in some big city or town. This lack of immediate criminal retribution for Wade strikes a bold moral conclusion. Perhaps it is Schrader’s way of presenting a moral compromise for one sin (patricide) that eliminates another (domestic violence and neglect). Like the murderous Edward G. Robinson at the end of Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, Wade is left to wander aimlessly to stew in his guilt-ridden conscious; a fate perhaps more damning for someone with Schrader’s strong religious morality. (Or perhaps some Catholic guilt has rubbed off onto Schrader after all those years of working with Martin Scorsese!)

Director: Paul Schrader. Producer Eric Berg (co-producer) Frank K. Isaac (co-producer), Nick Nolte (executive), Josette Perrotta (line), Barr B. Potter (executive), Linda Reisman. Music: Michael Brook. Cinematography: Paul Sarossy. Editing: Jay Rabinowitz. Production design: Anne Pritchard. Art direction: Michel Beaudet


Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 3, Issue 4 / April 1999 Essays   Film Reviews   gilles deleuze   paul schrader  

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