WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
In Paul Schrader's Affliction, Nick Nolte finally found the perfect vehicle for his trademark gravel-'n-smoke voice—that of a terribly conflicted emotional trainwreck of a man who, despite a certain inherent goodness, can't seem to escape the abusive clutches of a sadistic father. Not in many of his roles will you find that Nolte's voice actually becomes an essential component of the character. But in Affliction, the voice is almost symbolic of the character's inner Hell and even echoes the title.
Adapted from the novel by Russell Banks, Affliction concerns the inner and outer life of Wade Whitehouse (a never-better Nick Nolte), a man who has alienated his family (including, heart-breakingly, his young daughter) and most of his friends, and even most of his home town. He is adrift in his life, trying but consistently failing to be a good father to Jill (Brigid Tierney, in a great performance). The movie's primary theme involves the fragility of the individual in the midst of family. A parallel emerges between Whitehouse's relationship with his daughter and his relationship with his uncaring father (James Coburn), and there's a horrific inevitability to the events of the film. You watch in a state of sadness. Whitehouse's struggle with encroaching madness is explained through flashbacks to his youth. We meet his overbearing father, and we see that the many scars Wade received growing up are still open and festering. These wounds are even symbolized in a cringingly painful toothache that plagues him throughout the film.
A strange subplot concerning Whitehouse's best friend, Jack Hewitt (Jim True), takes an interesting tangent away from the main plot. A seeming crime occurs, and to illustrate Whitehouse's tendency to alienate those around him, he constructs a wild series of conspiracies around his friend. And we soon see that Whitehouse is anything but a reliable narrator through which to watch this unfolding story. We get the feeling that the only things keeping his tethered to the stability is his deteriorating link with his daughter and his friendship with local waitress Maggie (Sissy Spacek), the one person who sees a good person buried beneath his exterior. But even Jill and Maggie prove insufficient.
As much as I wanted to like Affliction, I found its narration by Willem Defoe (Wade's brother, whom we meet late in the film) to be off-putting and, at times, insulting. I felt it could have been completely dropped, and the result would have been an undeniably powerful film.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Lions Gate presents Affliction in a murky anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Detail is relatively poor, even close-up detail, and in backgrounds it is simply lost in softness, to the point of blurriness. Shadow detail is also wanting. Intentionally, the color palette is the opposite of vibrant, providing for a drab presentation that is worsened by the transfer. Flesh tones appear as a murky pinkish gray. The frequent snow scenes weren't white but rather bright gray. This transfer is almost difficult to watch.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc offers a Dolby Digital Surround track that's not particularly dynamic and is in fact largely centered at the screen. Although dialog is usually clear enough (although sometimes difficult to hear), it's always rooted at the center channel. I noticed no activity in the rears.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
All you get is an easter-egg Theatrical Trailer for Affliction. And I should mention that navigating through the menus can be somewhat difficult because of the too-subtle highlighting.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Affliction is a spare story of one man's inner breakdown, plagued incomprehensibly by the narration of another man. The DVD's image is below average, and no supplements of interest are available. Consider this one a rental.