Late in Russell Banks’ 1989 novel Affliction, set during a snowy autumn in a small New Hampshire town, a local government official, Gordon LaRiviere, banters in his office with the town cop, Wade Whitehouse. The subject turns to American corruption, beginning with the famous CEO, Lee Iacocca: “First he goes broke, then he gets the taxpayers to bail him out, then he comes on like Captain Capitalism, like he’s running for fucking president. Him and that guy Donald Trump. Fucking guys feed at the public trough, and when they get rich from it, they turn into Republicans. I always liked it that you’re a Democrat, Wade. You and me.”
Though the quote didn’t make it into the film adaptation, nothing about this exchange was out of the ordinary at the time. Setting aside whether the remark is disingenuous or not—LaRiviere is upper middle class—it clearly resonates with Wade, who is working class to the core. Wade has made countless poor choices in life: his wife divorced him and took their only daughter. People know him as a hothead, a former troublemaker who attempted to turn his life around by becoming a cop. Frustrated, disgruntled, he directs his rage at those who have it easy: the wealthy elite.
It is perhaps safe to say that this same man today would no longer be a Democrat, and his ire would find a different target: intellectual elites, liberals, immigrants, and the media that makes people like him look like fools.
Paul Schrader came across the paperback of Affliction in a bookshop, read it, and was immediately hooked. The language and themes struck him so profoundly that he knew he had to adapt the book into a feature film.
Schrader had been interested in the dark cinematic arts for years. In a 1972 issue of Film Comment, he published an influential essay on film noir in which he characterized the style as capturing America’s “new mood of cynicism, pessimism, and darkness” that permeated the years surrounding World War II. In 1975, The Yakuza—the first of many Schrader screenplays to make it to the screen—was directed by Sydney Pollack. Two years after that, Martin Scorsese turned Schrader’s most famous screenplay, Taxi Driver, into the ultimate expression of cynicism, pessimism, and darkness. But it wasn’t for another two decades that Schrader directed his own neo-noir masterpiece, Affliction, a film that at first glance doesn’t seem to fit the genre—the setting isn’t urban, and the female lead, Margie (Sissy Spacek), doesn’t resemble a femme fatale. If anything, Margie is a mitigating force, a human dam holding back Wade’s (Nick Nolte) indignation, preventing it from spilling out all over the place and destroying everything he loves. The film takes on the structure of a murder mystery, much of it filmed at night, following our protagonist down the pitchy corridors of his damaged soul. We watch him attempt to save himself from his own turbulent nature, but salvation eludes him. No one emerges unscathed from the wreckage he creates. No one wins.
It took some time to write the screenplay, a year to raise the money,and another couple of years to convince Nolte to commit to what many would later consider his finest role. Affliction cost $6 million to make and barely netted a profit, but it was never about the money. Schrader, as he often does, had a vision.
“One of the things art does really well is try to explain how it is that people act against their own best behavior, best knowledge,” Schrader told Charlie Rose. “You know that X is good. You know that you want to do X, and then you go out and do Y…This is about people who are trapped in patterns of behavior that they know are wrong and can’t get out.”
Affliction opens at night on a snowy landscape, a mountain looming in the distance. Moody synth and guitar, composed by Marc Ferrari, helps usher in a tone of impending doom.
Headlights shine from a boxy cop car. Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) begins with an ominous phrase in voiceover: “This is the story of my older brother’s strange criminal behavior and disappearance…” He goes on to explain that the events occurred “during a single deer hunting season.” It feels as though we’re poised to witness a true story, though, in fact, the story is fiction—the sort that Tim O’Brien, in The Things They Carried, called “truer than the truth.”
Wade is driving and his young daughter occupies the passenger seat, unhappy she’s been forced to spend time with her dad. The stable, fatherly image he projects is flimsier than the cheap tiger mask the little girl wears. She knows her father’s erratic behavior, even if he tries to shield her from it. The whole town seems to know.
When they get to a costume party at City Hall, she doesn’t want to join, but Wade manages to nudge her into the throng of kids and parents. The evening goes awry when his daughter calls her mother to come pick her up; rejection from townsfolk or his ex-wife is one thing, but rejection from his own child is unbearable. When his ex and her husband arrive to collect the girl, Wade loses his temper and gives the man a shove. He knows he messed up and he tries to downplay what just occurred. “I didn’t hit him,” he says as his ex-wife gets in the car. Stunned, he adds, “I’m not going to hit anybody,” to himself as much to anyone else, as if hitting is the only measure of going too far.
Affliction wasn’t Schrader’s first cinematic foray into masculine rage, but he’d never before emphasized how the rage was “born in the blood and bred in the bone and passed down from father to son,” as he put it to Charlie Rose in 1999. Wade inherited his volatility from a long line of abusive men. But unlike his father Glen (James Coburn), who proudly clings to his violent ways, Wade wants to break the cycle. He wants to be good. He wants—needs—love and respect. But the rage he’s inherited keeps the boiler inside him continually lit; everything is delicate until it explodes.
The morning after the debacle at the party, Wade’s friend Jack takes a rich Bostonian deer hunting. The man shoots himself, an apparent accident, but Wade begins to suspect foul play. Enter Rolfe, a college professor and the supposed voice of reason in the family, the only living brother not beaten by their alcoholic dad. During late-night phone calls, Rolfe becomes Wade’s sounding board and counselor. The brothers represent two versions of masculinity—one toxic, one more or less sound. Rather than dissuade Wade’s suspicions about his friend’s possible crime, Rolfe validates the theory and supplies additional details he’s seen in the news. Perhaps the murder was committed for money in retaliation for mob-related testifying, Rolfe suggests.
In bed with Margie the next night, Wade floats his theories. Dubious, she sits up. It’s a preposterous idea, and they hash it out. Wade tells her that he’s the only one who truly understands Jack: “I know what he’s like inside. He’s a lot like me at that age.”
“You wouldn’t have done anything like that, shoot somebody for money,” Margie replies.
“Not for money, but if somebody’d give me half a damn excuse.”
Margie is Wade’s foil. She is patient, trusting. She believes he can defeat the demons inside, that he can be redeemed. It’s painful when we realize that she’s made a bad bet.
As Affliction progresses, Wade becomes more confident. His conspiracy theory evolves. He discovers new angles, new players, from his boss to the dead man’s son. There’s talk of buying back-taxes for real estate deals. Amid the tumult of this hellish week, Wade suffers a horrendous toothache as he spirals further down. He confronts his boss, overturns his desk, smacks around some employees, and gets sent home packing.
When he arrives, Margie witnesses the side of Wade she hoped he’d overcome. He rifles through cabinets and drawers, maniacally ranting about his disintegrating life. “People are going to need me,” Wade rants. “After this is over they’re going to make me into a goddamn hero. You wait. You’ll see. I’ll deliver.”
Nolte’s performance is incredible, Captain Ahab and the Joker all at once. Margie quietly exits and Wade fails to notice. He finds what he’s looking for, though—pliers—and pulls the offending tooth from his jaw with little aid outside of gulps of cheap whiskey, his father’s brand.
Affliction goes beyond the standard narrative of monstrous men. It gives insight into how men sometimes attempt to overcome their abusive inheritance by redirecting violence away from their wives and children into what they see as a justifiable target—the powerful—however they understand that idea. For these men vigilantism must feel qualitatively different than domestic abuse or a bar fight. Righteous revenge is undoubtedly intoxicating to those who commit it, but it’s a bankrupt pursuit.
As unsettling as swimming through these putrid waters can be, it feels necessary to understand the mindset of such men. To my mind, there is no film better than Affliction at portraying this sort of sublimated, conspiracy-fueled violence, the sort currently proliferating in America once again. Think of so-called “Pizzagate,” a debunked conspiracy theory about an elite-run human-trafficking ring housed in a pizzeria in Washington D.C. The stakes were so high, and the story so compelling, it inspired a man to shoot up the joint with an AR-15. He thought he was striking back at the powerful, thought he was righting a wrong. He might have thought just this once he could be the hero, and not somebody else.
Online platforms like 8CHAN and its ilk are akin to a professorial brother spinning wild theories and giving voice to the worst impulses in men searching for meaning in a confusing and disappointing world, men who are taught that they should be more important than they’ve turned out to be. Suicides among working class white men are also near epidemic levels for many of the same reasons. American culture should have never taught men to feel this way. Nevertheless, they see themselves as entitled to power, and this power never materialized as they’d imagined. It’s as if they assume (or hope) that violence will give them a shortcut to their birthright of respect.
Wade feels passed over, pushed around. He tells his brother on the phone, “You know I get to feeling like a whipped dog some days, Rolfe. Some night I’m gonna bite back.” And by the film’s end, he does just that. His kills his abusive father and his friend Jack, and vanishes, never heard from again.
Other films of the era that depict defeated men “snapping,” such as Joel Schumacher’s 1993 feature Falling Down, are similar in tone but decidedly different in theme. In Falling Down a divorced man is fired and he goes on a killing rampage. There is no sense of righting a wrong, no politics, no becoming a hero.
Affliction was shocking because of how seldom these sorts of crimes were widely reported at the time. Since that time our cultural innocence has all but withered away. Only four months after the film’s release, two Colorado teenagers entered their high school with a small arsenal and murdered a dozen students and a teacher and then took their own lives. They wanted to be famous, and in the most repugnant way imaginable they manifested their wish. Americans could barely comprehend the contours of this tragedy, but, in recent years, as killing sprees have become almost commonplace, they have lost some potency and have yet to inspire enough collective action to make them stop.
About his problems, Wade is not wrong. Likewise, we understand his anger with wealthy developers cashing in on poverty, creating a playground for the rich. That part is reasonable. It’s his response that we deplore. In the end, he was wrong about Jack (it really was a hunting accident; that the man had testified on mobsters, and that his son was buying property in the area, were unfortunate coincidences). The dots he connected add up to a fantasy. No justice is served. He fails to become a hero. His crimes are little understood, condemned, and then ignored. It’s as though he never existed at all.
Toxic masculinity is a handy term, but it tends to occlude the causes of such horrible behavior, likely out of fear of legitimizing it or making excuses. How do we define a new masculinity that encourages men to engage emotionally with the world and with themselves? How do we teach men to ask for help, and how will society offer it? Affliction seems to encourage those questions, though it supplies few answers. I’d expect nothing less from complex art. But I long for a time when the film feels less insightful and more like a distant memory or a disturbing dream.