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Affliction, Paul Schrader's faithful adaptation of a Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter, Cloudsplitter) novel, opens with a quietly astonishing credit sequence, framing shots of a snowbound New England town like pictures from a family album. It would be unfair to expect Schrader to match that perfect expression of the limits of his central character's world, but what follows is as ham-fisted and obvious as those shots are eloquent and suggestive. An ideally cast Nick Nolte stars as a frustrated, ill-tempered loner stuck in his hometown, doggedly resisting the violent instincts instilled in him by his alcoholic father (James Coburn). But a set of trying circumstances—a bitter divorce, a hapless custody battle for his daughter, the underhanded dealings of his wealthy boss, and a persistent toothache—work against him. When an influential businessman is killed in a hunting accident, Nolte, the sole policeman in the area, suspects foul play and sees the case as a chance for redemption. The teaming of Banks and Schrader, who share a fascination with issues of male violence (the latter scripted Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), would seem right for the material. But rather than "proving the existence of God," as author Paul Auster has touted it, their close collaboration fails to recapture the accumulating force of Banks' book. Schrader has always been better as a writer and a critic than as a dramatist, which is why his most successful work has either been published in film journals or directed by Martin Scorsese. His flat, awkward staging diminishes some good performances—particularly those of Nolte and a welcome Sissy Spacek—and Willem Dafoe's leaden narration underlines each theme with a magic marker. Affliction languished on the festival circuit for a long time without a distributor; unfortunately, it's easy to see why.


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