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Kristen Wiig Dials It Way Back in Hateship Loveship

Watching Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live, you maybe sometimes wondered if she was from outer space, perhaps some planet where women have big foreheads, tiny hands, and sing like chickens on helium. As sheltered housekeeper Johanna in Liza Johnson’s proudly frustrating Hateship Loveship — a pun on the emotions on either side of friendship — the buttoned-up, buttoned-lipped Wiig again seems to have landed in the Midwest from Mars, as though, like David Bowie before her, she’s The Maid Who Fell to Earth. In real life, a middle-age virgin like Johanna would be wearing mom jeans and sweatpants, clothing Wiig has donned before for laughs. But Johnson sticks her in faded dresses with Peter Pan collars that haven’t been seen outside Amish country in decades. When Johanna furtively slips on a pair of her boss’s granddaughter’s sunglasses, she looks like an alien studying how to blend in.

Eventually, we learn Johanna’s origins are grimly terrestrial. Since she was 15, she’s been the live-in caretaker of an elderly woman who kept her physically close but at an emotional remove. Johanna didn’t even know how old she was when she died. It’s been a beige life. Against the shabby wallpaper in the opening scenes, Wiig’s red hair is the sole jolt of color. Asked about the good times, Johanna can only recall one trip to Iowa City. As for her childhood before, it’s a mystery. But any circumstances that hand off a teenager to a stranger can’t have been good.

Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) is Johanna’s second employer, mainly so she can watch over his hard-headed granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Johanna’s only been in his house for a few hours when his estranged former son-in-law, Ken (Guy Pearce), calls her “gorgeous,” buys her a burger, and then takes off to Chicago. His cheap, forgettable kindness upends Johanna’s world. It’s instantly clear to us Ken’s a rat: a meth-snorting ex-con who breaks everything he touches. But the attention of any man opens Johanna up to the hope of what she hopes is a normal, wedded future — and exposes her to heartbreak when Sabitha callously pranks both the father she hates and this weirdo who’s moved into her house by emailing Johanna love letters in Ken’s name.

Hateship Loveship is a film you long to like. You become desperate to hear Wiig laugh, and when that starts to look impossible, you start wondering what exactly the movie, inspired by a work by Alice Munro, wants to accomplish. It’s too painful to be uplifting, too private to explore what was clearly child abuse. At times, Joanna’s closest parallel seems to be Carrie White, without the telekinesis or religion.

The first act ends with Johanna hopping a bus to marry a man who hasn’t thought of her in months. It’s excruciating. Yet we, too, have a hard time loving Johanna, in part because she’s one of those maddeningly mute characters who won’t open her mouth and set things straight. Mostly, it’s because Johnson doesn’t seem to trust her star to unclench and act. Instead, Wiig stoically clods around in ankle socks and sensible shoes with her shoulders hunched forward like a nervous dog’s. We’re anxious to see her flower — she deserves to, damn it — but the closest she gets are the prim pansies printed on her apron, and the occasional microscopic smile that the camera has to push close to catch.

In contrast, the rest of the cast, down to the gossipy local bank teller (Christine Lahti), feels electrically human. Steinfeld is a marvel — she seems like a real teenager, not a precocious Hollywood concoction — and Nolte, gruff as ever, even gets a makeout scene where the lens zooms so tight on his mouth we expect the soundtrack to switch to a porno saxophone. As the attention shifts to Joanna’s fumbled wooing, Pearce, dirtied up with stringy hair, worn boxers, and tattoos, shoulders the story’s emotional arc, visibly wrestling with feelings she wouldn’t even know how to describe. The new setting, a shuttered motel Ken bought with vague plans to renovate if the money ever fell in his lap, couldn’t be less romantic. It’s cluttered with broken lamps, stacks of ancient sheets, and, most awkwardly, Ken’s lady friend, an aging party girl played full steam by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

At its most hopeful, Hateship Loveship suggests that a person’s rough edges can be scoured away with empathy, patience, and trust. Still, we’re never convinced that Ken is worth the elbow grease — even for a lonelyheart whose second nature is servitude.

Only one scene hints at the weird spark Wiig could have added if she’d allowed herself to loosen up just a fraction. While polishing a mirror, Johanna stops to look, really look, at her dormant beauty. She leans in to see better. Then she gives her reflection a chaste peck that dampens into a wet, squeaky French kiss. The moment is sad, messy, earnest, and strange, the classic Wiig comedy combination, and while it’s understandable she wants to do more than make people laugh, we’re grateful for even these shared seconds of happiness.

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Warrior: A Family That Ultimate Fights Together…

You know those Affliction shirts, covered in skulls, gothic lettering, and tribal patterns, all cacophonous symbols of badass machismo? That’s what the Mixed Martial Arts tie-in movie Warrior is—an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink fire sale of male-weepie tropes, awesome in its thoroughness. The collective dream of authentic blue-collar American grubbiness lives on in a Pittsburgh row house, where long-estranged son Tommy (Tom Hardy), just back from a tour with the marines, visits his recovering alcoholic dad, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte). Tommy can’t forgive the old man for breaking up the family, but needs a trainer for his nascent MMA career. In Philadelphia, Tommy’s older brother, Brendon (Joel Edgerton), a physics teacher and family man who has likewise broken ties with his past, gets back in the fighter’s octagon to keep the bank from repossessing his house. The announcement of a tournament-style championship contest sets the brothers on a collision course to a family reunion in the cage. Old line-gargler Nolte remains an effortlessly moving presence, while Hardy and Edgerton embody their archetypes and handle the physical demands. With a silverback strut and the neck of a ’30s-mural prole, Hardy does Method brooding, while Edgerton underplays with integrity in a film that spends its last hour piling climax on top of climax, holding the audience in an emotional arm bar.

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Zookeeper

Kevin James is a pratfalling jackass coached by talking animals in the ways of love in Zookeeper, a comedy whose cliché-embracing stupidity borders on the surrealistic. Marrying the kiddie fantasy of Dr. Dolittle with the man-child goofiness of producer Adam Sandler’s oeuvre, Frank Coraci’s drab-looking film charts Boston zoo warden Griffin’s (James) efforts to woo bitchy former fiancée Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) via the amorous advice of, among others, a lion (Sylvester Stallone), lioness (Cher), and monkey (a funny-voiced Sandler). That quest involves so many hoary conventions that the story would seem downright parodic if not for its willful dimness. When not smashing into walls and plummeting into pits, Griffin’s heart is torn between materialistic Stephanie and kind co-worker Kate (Rosario Dawson), but the tale’s true central relationship is between Griffin and morose gorilla Bernie (Nick Nolte). Their mushy bromance—or is it gromance?—involves staring at the stars while lying on top of a van and scaling a bridge during a race-to-the-airport finale, though its highlight is an early sequence in which Bernie laments humans’ penchant for lying and then wonders, “Is T.G.I. Friday’s as incredible as it looks?” It’s a sequence of such mind-boggling bizarreness that it’s unclear if this is the crazy Nolte’s career apex or nadir. Nick Schager

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Mr. Barfly, Ph.D.

Poet Gerald Locklin, perhaps best known for his longtime friendship with Charles Bukowski, shares his illustrious pal’s penchant for pickled misanthropy and genially relaxed verse. The Toad Poems juxtaposes Locklin’s poems, performed by alter ego Burl “Toad” Turner (John Wojda), and the unraveling of Turner’s triangular relations with ex-wife Kate (Barbara Pitts) and grad student Casey (Marina Squerciati). It’s a kind of Barfly with an academic pedigree. Fretting his way through readings or assiduously ducking his teaching responsibilities, Turner has a raffish, Nick Nolte–lite charm in Wojda’s portrayal. Wojda reads Locklin’s poetry with rather more dramatic emphasis than it can bear, however. The value in Locklin’s writing lies primarily in its careful observation and offhand humor; deceptively humble, it wilts without the acerbic self-deprecation that Bukowski, for instance, brought to his own public performances.

Squerciati and Wojda never really strike sparks in their scenes together. They’re hampered by the affected terms in which their characters declare their emotions, as though each were constantly trying to outpoet the other. To his credit, Locklin lets both Kate and Casey give Turner some of the drubbing he deserves. But the production—loose enough it could make a Robert Altman shoot seem uptight—ultimately leaves Turner’s story a hazy Southern California dream.

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A League of His Own

Movie actors of Nick Nolte’s clout (and gender) get to decide right down to the last wrinkle and half-ounce of muscle or flab how they want to age on-screen. Nolte, weary and grizzled even in his youth, seems to have been prepping for his twilight days since he was 35 in 1976.

That was the year the gruff-voiced, prematurely weathered Nebraska native and college football stud slouched toward stardom in the soap miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man—playing the poor man, naturally. From there, the physical and psychic poundings of Vietnam (Who’ll Stop the Rain) and the pro ball gridiron (North Dallas Forty) swiftly supplied the young actor with the limp, the growl, and the short fuse he needed to portray what would become his characteristic theme: the merciless ravages of experience upon the male body and spirit. Now, at 65, he needs only his age—and his integrity—to achieve hunched realism rather than aerobicized, plasticized uplift.

Near the end of Off the Black, a disarmingly droll and insightful indie in which Nolte plays a high school baseball umpire and failed dad, there’s a short scene of his character Ray Cook straining once more to wriggle his abundant girth into the ump’s uniform. Nolte, never to be mistaken for Heath Ledger, dares to appear naked in this scene, and it doesn’t look as though there’s a single stretch of toned tissue on his entire body—which is no small measure of the shape he’s in as an actor. Where most sexagenarian stars—Harrison Ford (64), Michael Douglas (62), and Sylvester Stallone (60) among them—will do anything to show they can still crack the whip or get it up or at least get in the ring for one more round, Nolte is a lot more interested in showing that he can’t, that the battered body (or mind) simply won’t allow it. If Rocky Balboa, opening later this month, is an absurdist fantasy of senior-age machismo, Off the Black—named for the pitch that narrowly misses the mark—comes infinitely closer to the reality of exhausted masculinity. It’s a ninth-inning movie wherein the ump’s only triumph is another brutally honest call.

The first of these unpopular decisions—”ball four”—is issued, in Nolte’s patented rasp, at the start of the film. The crestfallen pitcher is Dave (Trevor Morgan), a sad-eyed, shaggy-haired 17-year-old in a small industrial town who comes to the crotchety ump’s house at night with two friends, some toilet paper, and a brick. Old Ray, whose fridge tellingly sports a yellow Post-it note that reads “3 beer limit,” pulls a gun on the fleeing trio’s straggling member, peels off the kid’s ski mask to discover a flipped-out Dave, and seizes an opportunity to put the young pitcher to work as an indentured servant. Ray toys with young Dave like a cat swatting a mouse, forcing him to do mundane physical labor as penance for trespassing and vandalism. But the relationship expands to include the occasional fishing excursion and adventure in over-limit brewsky swilling. Dave even agrees to attend Ray’s 40-year high school reunion, posing as his son in order for the ump to look, or perhaps feel, accomplished.

This old-lion-bonds-with-young-buck material sounds a mite facile and formulaic in description, but Off the Black, written and directed by James Ponsoldt, reveals its relevant details slowly and cautiously—as men of any age generally do. As in Affliction, another Nolte-driven study of masculinity, the awkwardness of the men’s attempts at emotional expression appears inherited. “What did he do?” Ray asks Dave, referring to his old man. “Nothing” is the aptly clipped reply. For his part, Ray is doubly afflicted: Neither his long-estranged son nor his Alzheimer’s-suffering dad (Michael Higgins) is able to swing at the ump’s humorously desperate conversational pitches.

Off the Black belongs on the shelf beside recent peers Spring Forward and Old Joy; it’s not as deep or resonant as those two, but despite extraneous supporting characters (i.e., women), it’s likewise concerned with lamenting, and dare we say expanding the limitations of men’s communication skills. Here both umpire and actor call ’em as they see ’em.

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‘Peaceful Warrior’

Gymnast Dan Millman (Scott Mechlowicz) is one of the best at what he does, and he has it all: perfect abs, a big bulge in his crotch, beautiful girlfriends, and the ability to balance full beer glasses on his feet. There’s just one small problem . . . he has bad dreams. Taking a night walk to clear his head of the nocturnal visions, he comes upon a grizzled gas station attendant (Nick Nolte) who mysteriously disappears and reappears, offering some new-agey philosophy once he has the kid’s attention. Dan sarcastically dubs the guy “Socrates,” and since a real name is never offered or revealed, the philosopher moniker sticks. Under the old man’s tutelage, Dan learns to live for the moment, a skill that apparently gives him super reflexes and the ability to see things in bullet time. It’s based on a work of fiction and autobiography from the ’80s titled Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives, and it mostly plays like utter nonsense onscreen, but it’s never exactly boring.

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The Play’s The Thing

The backstage drama is one of the oldest clichés in show business, but veteran trickster Michael Almereyda—he of the video-on-video Ethan Hawke Hamlet—successfully dusts it off in This So-Called Disaster. Almereyda’s behind-the-scenes documentary of Sam Shepard directing his play The Late Henry Moss is both resonant and skillfully devious.

Shepard played the Ghost in Almereyda’s Hamlet, but it’s Almereyda who’s the spook here, invisible but ubiquitous. The movie’s look is stylishly jagged but, unusual for the showboat director, the intent is self-effacing; Almereyda eliminates his presence so as to keep close to the action. He haunts the rehearsals, staging his own PR and eavesdropping on the production’s other interviews. “It’s all a challenge . . . ” Shepard unhelpfully tells a journalist as Almereyda signals something of his own viewpoint with a cut to the writer casually directing his play with a glass of red wine in his hand.

The hottest ticket in San Francisco when it premiered for a limited run at the Magic Theater in late 2000, The Late Henry Moss boasted a high-voltage Hollywood cast—Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin. Featuring a pair of conflicted brothers (Nolte and Penn) and an overbearing, hard-drinking father in a stylized frontier landscape, the play recalls Curse of the Starving Class and True West. It’s quintessential Shepard—or, as Penn puts it, “the plight of being a man where being a man doesn’t have any definition.” The writer expresses the hope that Henry Moss will be his final play on the subject, but that seems unlikely once Almereyda gets Shepard talking about his dad—a larger-than-life Depression kid cum World War II warrior who wound up a violent drunk. (The movie’s title refers to the elder Shepard’s characterization of his family.)

Henry Moss got mixed reviews, but that hardly matters here, where the actors are, in essence, performing their performances. As a study of acting, the movie compares interestingly to Hamlet, another all-star indie with an emphasis on role-playing. Penn and Nolte insure a surplus of beefy bluster—especially since they seem to be portraying their on-camera selves whenever they are offstage. In a typical bit of business, the supremely diffident Penn tricks the ever vulnerable Nolte into eating a jalapeño pepper. Each man has a richly self-dramatizing solo in which he explains how he happened to become an actor.

As the stars wax philosophical, the supporting actors are shown mainly honing their craft: Marin is warm and unpretentious; Harrelson, also affable, comes across as genuinely demented. Sheila Tousey has the lone female role, as a Mexican death-angel wench, while Shepard veteran James Gammon plays the dead father with an alkie croak that Nolte seems determined to grow into. Their climactic pas de deux is something that Almereyda never gets enough of.

Actors drift in and out of character as the filmmaker shuffles chronology to suit himself—or rather, to promote the sense of Shepard free-associating the production out of his head. (It’s as though he made the play to catch his own conscience.) Shepard is seen critiquing his dialogue (“let’s get rid of this Joseph Conrad shit”), conducting scenes for rhythm, and searching for the appropriate language with which to talk to his actors. For his part, Penn makes the surprising comment that writers suffer even more for their art than actors.

Fascinated by the project’s proliferating delusions, Almereyda contrives to have his movie reach critical mass not with the third-act dance of death but with Shepard discussing the conditions under which his own father died—complete with video fragment of the old man. It’s a contribution to the small genre of verité performance. Deconstructing as it annotates, adapting while it records, This So-Called Disaster reverses Shepard’s strategies. This acted and scripted so-called documentary converts literature into confession and intimate stage performances into big screen turns.

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Devaluing the Euro

The Good Thief, Neil Jordan’s remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1955), doesn’t quite freedom-fry the Gallic classic, but it’s less an homage than a mill-run colonial takeover. The first to retool Melville—with the exception, in spirit only, of Quentin Tarantino—Jordan proves predictably unreliable, oblivious to the difference between iconhood and cliché, holding no great faith in his audience’s left lobes. The vicissitudes of Jordan’s CV have ranged from the trenchant sublimity of The End of the Affair and The Butcher Boy to vacant horrors like High Spirits and We’re No Angels. Here, he treads heavily on what was once a matter of effortless, indigenous style.

American neo-noir, as it has been labeled and extolled, may have begun with Polanski’s Chinatown, but lately it could be better defined as noir revisionism—making noir’s proletariat nihilism safe and snarky for mass consumption and maximal profit. Melville devised bone-chilly requiems for criminal outcast-ness that explored the emotional costs of post-Bogartian cool (among other broody things), but all Jordan sees is the cool. Glossy, glib, and fussily clotted with neon, saxophones, and backlit cigarette smoke, his movie winnows the original’s existentialist fable into a busy caper thriller, copping plot devices from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 and even straining to Wong Kar-wai its camera’s way around the fleshpots of Nice. It’s all pizzazz, and the pizzazz is all borrowed.

Bob the Gambler is now a droopy, shambling American expat (Nick Nolte), notorious as a heist engineer but presently nursing a disastrous career as a cardman and a junkie. Resting squarely on Nolte’s self-abused shoulders, The Good Thief makes a good case for him having finally transformed into an unprecedented movie creature—not a leading man or a character actor, but a growling, attitudinizing monster whose alligatored visage can only articulate emotion by alarmingly intense muscular dead-lifting. Talk about poker faces; often, Nolte seems lucky to get words out. Thanks to Bob’s affection for a willowy Slavic hooker (Nutsa Kukhianidze, coming across like a Russo-teen Helen Hunt) and a newly hatched plan to steal a Monte Carlo casino’s collection of paintings, Nolte’s hero arcs from dissolute has-been to motivated rescuer, affectionately sparring with a suspicious detective (Tchéky Karyo) and reviving his motley gang of co-conspirators for One Last Job. The star, meanwhile, grumbles and bulldozes his way through the movie in sore need of a vitamin shot and an alert study of the Melville oeuvre, where no one says exactly what they mean.

Jordan gets some bounce from his international cast (particularly Saïd Taghmaoui as Bob’s Algerian sidekick and director Emir Kusturica as an unshaven techie), and the gambling melodramatics—particularly once Bob embarks on his superhuman winning streak—are congenitally tense. But, irritatingly, The Good Thief winds up exactly where Melville would never have gone—on the sunny side of the street. Dorer la pilule, indeed.


Another French legend recycling, Josée Dayan’s Cet Amour Là rhapsodizes the strange, embattled host-parasite love affair between aging literary lioness Marguerite Duras and Yann Andréa, a twentysomething arch-fan who became her lover and aide for the woman’s last 16 years. Dayan’s film is a bizarrely attenuated experience, neglecting dramatic substance and context (we never learn anything of Duras’s books as they’re written—we hear more about the process of retyping—and virtually no mention is made of her films) in favor of swooning hagiography. (Neither is any effort made to make their relationship seem longer than a few months.) As personified, inevitably, by Jeanne Moreau (the two women matured side by side in the French New Wave, and Moreau has already embodied Durasian alter egos in five films), Duras is a crazy, curmudgeonly wino, given to burbling the sort of declarative nonsense about the dead body of love and the agony of art that has long given French movies a bad name in Duluth. As the placid and dopey Andréa, from whose memoir the film is derived, Aymeric Demarigny is a handsome anodyne, gazing upon Moreau’s autumnal despair with the stare of a dead spaniel.

But Moreau herself remains redoubtable—still possessed, at a supremely fleshy 75, of a camera rapport seductive enough to make you wonder why Dayan chicken-shitted-ly elided the relationship’s sexual consummation. (The film drearily cuts to a sunset instead.) Moreau provides Duras with truckloads of warmth and common sense that aren’t in the screenplay, and watching her gamely field this dialogue is observing grace under idiotic pressure. (Is it too much to croon over the unsung effulgence of Moreau’s hair, as always unforgettably framing her petulant frown and defenseless eyes?) Cet Amour Là may worship heedlessly at Duras’s memory, but it’s a testament to Moreau alone.


Genuflecting toward another time-worn legend, the doc Fellini: I’m a Born Liar features the beloved ringmaster’s last interviews, in which he sometimes cheerfully, sometimes mordantly, kisses his own ass and maintains into perpetuity that his “fantasies” were the stuff of pure genius. How enlightening you find Damian Pettigrew’s obsessive film depends on whether you’re as adoring of Fellini as he was of himself; for the devoted, it’s a gold mine, revisiting famous locations from the maestro’s films and life, and including uproarious interviews with Terence Stamp and Donald Sutherland about their scalding experiences working for cinema’s most self-involved puppetmaster. (You also see, in behind-the-scenes footage, actors actually counting instead of reciting dialogue; few major filmmakers cared less about sonic fidelity, and the creepy disconnect that resulted from Fellini’s routine dubbing atrocities may have been part of their fascination to 1960s audiences.) In choosing his gorgeous film clips, Pettigrew tellingly eschews the prototypically grotesque Fellini image—in any case, this may be the best way to see many Fellini films, one disembodied minute at a time.

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Nolte and Bridges Flog a Dread Horse

At this late date, Sam Shepard’s brand of symbol-strewn American Dreamism seems to require a little electroshock, and that could be said twice over for the narrative pulsation of plays-on-film. Matthew Warchus’s Simpatico suffers obliviously beneath both burdens. A decked-out mediocrity with a high-octane cast and enough respect for Shepard’s lightly stylized dialogue to treat it realistically, Warchus’s movie cannot quite overcome its theatrical sclerosis. We have two old friends, Vinnie the textbook whiskey-guzzling, unwashed waste case (Nick Nolte) and Carter the uptight billionaire entrepreneur (Jeff Bridges), both of whom we immediately learn have a common closet skeleton that Carter, with so much more to lose, is in constant dread of Vinnie revealing. Nervously summoned to California from his Kentucky estate by a lying Vinnie, Carter is soon left holding little more than his sports jacket as a semideranged Vinnie steals his rental car and flies back to Kentucky with a proverbial black (shoe) box of dark secrets. Enter both Cecilia (Catherine Keener), a sweetly naive supermarket clerk who serves as a go-to girl, and Simms (Albert Finney), a crotchety old bloodstock agent (the macguffin is horse racing, and a particular horse-racing scam). Of course, somewhere amid this country-mouse/city-mouse routine, the protagonists begin to switch identities, and Carter begins to swill whiskey and sleep on Vinnie’s loamy sofa.

It’s a shame Nolte and Bridges weren’t cast as brothers, because the two have similar rumpled-suede faces and irritated-bark delivery. They’re dynamite together, but too much time is spent on their separate trajectories into symbolhood. Sharon Stone, as the requisite rich Southern souse-wife, doesn’t show up until more than an hour in, and then chews her lines like they were martini olives. Predictably, she gets to deliver the play’s Big Secret, but in a moment of horrifying melodramatic slo-mo. (Warchus can rarely resist a moment of hysteria, or a chance to cut to a rosy-cheeked flashback of the characters as young buckaroos.) Simpatico takes on the free-floating guilt of the American enterprise, but the movie’s squinting cynicism is facile. In fact, it’s preachy as hell; only Keener’s bubblehead is untortured by shame. In a climactic howler, maddened couch potato Bridges pitches his nagging cell phone into the void, not because it doesn’t work but because it works all too well. Apparently it would’ve said less about Our Soullessness if he’d just turned the thing off.

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Fathers Figure

So the day before New Year’s Eve, my candidate for the best-directed Hollywood movie and least enticing title of 1998 sneaks into town as volatile and vulnerable as its befuddled antihero. Affliction, cagily adapted by writer-director Paul Schrader from Russell Banks’s 1989 novel, is as chilly a spectacle as you’re likely to see. It’s like watching a comeback in an empty stadium.


Raging rider, easy bull: Peter Biskind’s “new Hollywood” tell-all introduces the young Schrader as a “bomb waiting to go off [who] massaged his reputation as a wild man when he realized he could make it work for him.” Edging out Bulworth in the what-coulda-been sweepstakes, Affliction is the sort of American movie nostalgically associated with the first half of the 1970s. Low-key and downbeat, character-driven and well-written, Schrader’s orchestration of a male self-destruct act could be a belated follow-up to Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. “His story is my ghost life and I want to exorcise it,” the hero’s younger brother (Willem Dafoe) explains in an introductory voice-over that, although taken from the novel, sounds like it could have come straight from the director’s own mouth.


Affliction opens on a suitably discomfiting note, the last night of October, in an unpretty New Hampshire town with divorced dad and part-time cop Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) trying and failing to prod his unhappy nine-year-old daughter Jill into the Halloween spirit. The next morning, deer season starts on this forlorn planet and, before the morning is out, Wade’s cocky young pal Jack (Jim True) will become involved in a fatal hunting accident that might or might not have wider implications.


Nolte’s Wade is a big, tormented guy with a convoluted sense of injustice and a sympathetic waitress girlfriend played, in a richer performance than written, by Sissy Spacek. (There’s a poignant postcoital image of this life-battered, flannel-wrapped couple in a cold room on a too-small bed.) In 1973, Nolte’s would have been the Jack Nicholson role, but Wade is not exactly a beautiful loser. That he’s apparently the town’s last smoker only underscores his anachronism. Our antihero wanders around town nursing a monstrous toothache, muttering to himself that he’s a whipped dog who just might bite back, but his real affliction is the legacy of male violence inherited from his drunken, abusive father Glen.


James Coburn (once the most jovially ironic of ’60s action heros) plays Glen as a primeval terror in a few memorable flashbacks and in the present, even more vividly, as an evil old coot, cursing his children as “Jesus freaks and candy-asses,” slugging Seagrams from the bottle, and ranting about the disappearance of “real men” like his father. Wade drinks a lot, too, and Affliction catches him on his downward spiral—planning a crazy child-custody suit, making late-night phone calls to his kid brother (a repressed college history professor living somewhere near Boston), stumbling onto some sort of real estate scam orchestrated by his oily boss (Holmes Osborne).


Wade absorbs a lot of punishment but, in attempting to justify himself by avenging a crime, he’s a lot closer to Travis Bickle than he is to Jake LaMotta (or Jesus) in the Schrader gallery of masculine archetypes. Ignoring the reality principle, whether it’s embodied by a freezing farmhouse or a divorce lawyer in a wheelchair, Wade can’t prevent himself from turning into his father—as much as he hates him. If anything, each attempt to forestall the transformation brings him that much closer.


Did I mention how well-constructed Affliction is? Disaster has been lurking all movie long but things fall apart with a frightening suddenness. At the very moment when Schrader orchestrates a tracking shot to underscore Wade’s bereftness, Glen comes chuckling out of the family farmhouse like a bad dream: “I love you, you mean sonofabitch.” Affliction‘s ending reminds some people of the small apocalypse with which Andrei Tarkovsky closed out The Sacrifice but, like everything else in this nuanced film, it’s rueful and distanced, understated rather than grandiose.


As personal as Affliction seems, it’s neither solipsistic nor overweening. Indeed, Schrader’s self-effacing direction allows ample room for his performers to stretch (and they repay him with a half-dozen superb ensemble scenes). This raw, troubling movie isn’t anyone’s idea of a Christmas tree but it illuminates the darkness anyway—Affliction radiates with humility.