The same calendar that alerted me to Nic Roeg's ninetieth birthday also informed me that next week would have been James Coburn's ninetieth. For an actor born in 1928, he got going fairly late, making his film debut in 1959, by which time, for example, his precise contemporary, Ann Blyth, had been a name since Mildred Pierce in 1946, starred in Kismet and The Student Prince, and was already on the gentle downward slide. Coburn's brand of laconic amused masculinity is enduring and watchable in anything - The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Charade, In Like Flint, etc. But I thought I'd pick his last great film, made five years before his death, because it's the one that very belatedly won a fine actor his Oscar. I've met the director Paul Schrader just once - at a party at Jay and Fran Landesman's house (Fran was the lyricist of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most", which I write about here). Somewhere in the chit-chat I mentioned that I had a pad in New Hampshire, and Schrader said, "Oh, I've just optioned a book set in New Hampshire. I walked into a store, picked it up casually, and was grabbed by the first sentence." In 1997 that first sentence became the first line of his movie:
This is the story of my brother's criminal behavior and his strange disappearance.
Affliction is based on a Russell Banks novel set in northern New Hampshire near the western border with Vermont, which is more or less my backyard — although, until Banks pointed it out, I had no idea I lived in such a nowhere burg populated exclusively by losers, halfwits and alcoholics. The token murders in this state tend to occur in late winter, when some hitherto harmless fellow goes nuts, takes out a couple of his near and dear ones, and then turns the gun on himself. Banks's novel and Schrader's film are concerned less with the sudden explosion than with the long, slow-burning fuse leading up to it — the deep roots of apparently arbitrary violence. Their protagonist is Wade Whitehouse, the washed-up going-nowhere chief of the one-man police department of "Lawford", and also its snowplough driver and well-driller.
Wade is Nick Nolte, who has a bad toothache throughout the entire movie, which gives him even more of an excuse to do his usual Nick Nolte furniture-chewing shtick. But it sort of works here. Coburn plays his plaid-clad dad, and God knows what he made of the script, since most of his lines aren't actually words but merely a series of backwoods growls and throat-clearings. He renders them brilliantly, of course, and makes them a very plausible kind of communication. There's a mom, too, but for reasons that quickly become clear she has even less dialogue than Coburn. These are familiar North Country characters, staggering through the rubble of their lives. Wade has an ex-wife, and a kid he doesn't relate to, and a girlfriend waitress who loves him, but he can't seem to help keeping her at a distance. The last is played with careworn grace by Sissy Spacek, who's as watchable as Coburn and superb at finding the humanity in simple, inarticulate types. All these people are living lives of dismal isolation, like mime artists in invisible boxes they can't break out of to connect with anyone else. The only one who's bust free of the box is Wade's brother, played by Willem Dafoe, who's left town for academe and Massachusetts.
The plot itself starts out as a thriller. A hunting accident on the first day of deer season — the kind of fatal shooting that normally warrants merely the most perfunctory report to the Fish and Game Department — niggles at the back of Wade's mind until it blooms into what he believes to be a town-wide conspiracy. He thinks it's big, and a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the world - or at least of Lawford. And about halfway through you realize it's not going to work out like that - that for once the crazy guy in the small town warning of a shark terrorizing beachgoers or strange happenings in the cemetery or a serial killer on the loose is, in fact, just plum crazy. His awful dysfunctional relationship with Coburn's snarling, grunting, simple yet nevertheless still powerful father is at the root of it, but so are the similarities between the men: both dad and son, for example, like to lick salt off their hands.
My main interest, of course, as with any story set somewhere with which one is broadly familiar, was in pointing out all the teensy little things the film gets wrong. But, as the movie proceeded, I found to my surprise that everything looked incredibly familiar but at the same time totally wrong. About halfway through, I twigged: although Affliction takes place in New Hampshire, where I happen to live, it's actually filmed in the Province of Quebec, where I used to live. For the fictional small town of Lawford, Schrader chose Mont St-Hillaire and St-Jean Baptiste. I realise the odds of my particular problem with Affliction afflicting any other film reviewer on the planet — or any other moviegoer — are about a gazillion to one. But it does prompt a few general thoughts on the subject of location.
Few film-makers are as expert on the subject of damaged, violent males as Paul Schrader. But Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, to cite Schrader's most noted exploration of the theme, is a raging bull in New York, and urban alienation is a different game: in the city, everyone comes from somewhere else, and they fester in anonymity. In the country, it's not rootlessness but an excess of roots. People are shaped by climate and geography: murder season in the Yankee highlands is March and April, when winter drags on and cabin fever eventually gets the better of you. But, killers or not, the northern New England character is formed by one central fact: that come November Mother Nature rises up and spends the next six months trying to throttle the life out of you. It's a particular landscape: you turn your back for a minute and the trees have reclaimed your field.
That's not Quebec. If you stand on the border between la belle province and the Granite State, on a windswept hill just above the headwaters of the Connecticut River, where the White Mountains dribble away to the St Lawrence plain, you don't really need a frontier post at all: the view to the north is so clearly a different country from the view to the south. To see Nick Nolte pretending to be a small-town cop in the wooded hills of New Hampshire as he's driving through flat farmland is as risible as old episodes of "The Saint", where each week shots of Roger Moore emerging from East Midlands Airport would be implausibly labelled "Geneva" or "Rome". These characters do not inhabit this landscape.
Aside from the view, Schrader's script is as faithful an adaptation as any novelist could wish for, eliminating a couple of plot threads but retaining whole chunks of dialogue. Thus, he includes the scene in the diner where Wade (Nolte) confides to his waitress lover Margie (Sissy Spacek) that there's something wrong with the place's new sign — "HOME MADE COOKING" — but he can't figure out what it is. But Schrader doesn't include Wade's resolution of this puzzler: as he's leaving, he realizes that the sign should either read "HOME COOKING" or "HOME MADE PIES", but that no one ever says "HOME MADE COOKING".
A film works in the same way- it's a composite of a thousand road signs and window mullions and cereal boxes and, if just a few dozen jar for reasons you can't quite articulate, there goes the movie. So: the woods where Wade's pal Jack takes the rich Massachusetts guy hunting shouldn't have a fence along the road — fences are Quebec, not New Hampshire; and Wade's eight-year-old rustbucket of a cruiser would say "POLICE" on it — even in a loser town like Lawford. I'm not just being a nitpicking ninny here. One of the problems with location scouts is that they tend to think in isolation — hey, this'd be great for Wade's parents' farm, and this place twenty miles away would be just right for the town hall, and fifteen miles down the road there's a house that'd be perfect for the town clerk's office. But even the most incoherent town nevertheless has a pattern — a barely visible chain of connections that explain why it's the way it is. Schrader has picked out some striking-looking individual buildings — emphasized in the snapshots of the opening titles — but they don't seem to exist as an organic whole. You never believe the contractor's office and the restaurant really sit on the same street.
But don't let the stage set put you off, because the acting going on in it is truly first-rate, and I enjoy the cast a little more each time I watch the picture. Nolte's very good as the kind of guy who never quite gets it, who gets wound up over trivialities and fails to notice the important things. And Sissy Spacek and James Coburn give raw, compulsive performances that are among the very best of their distinguished careers. The French-Canadian character's accent is, to my ears, a bit off. In those days, Montreal was Hollywood Nord, where in any given week you'd see Julie Andrews or Ewan McGregor, Denzel Washington or Bette Midler padding the streets, pretending they were in Philadelphia or Houston or Denver. Still, when rural Quebec has to stand in for rural New Hampshire, you can't help but feel the trend's way out of control.
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