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Paul Schrader's Affliction, adapted from the novel by Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter), charts the slow descent of small-town sheriff Wade Whitehouse (a raspy, gruffly restrained Nick Nolte) into violence, the legacy of the corrupt love of an abusive, alcoholic father. The story ostensibly centers on a hunting death on the outskirts of town, but as Wade digs into what may or not be a conspiracy, his personal life spirals out of control. James Coburn, who deservedly won an Oscar for his mocking, sneering performance, is Wade's father, who jumps back into the cycle of abuse when Wade moves in to care for the aging man. Chronicling the story in distant, dispassionate tones is Willem Dafoe as Wade's younger brother Rolfe, who "escaped" his father's legacy in a world of books. Schrader has made his reputation revealing the scarred psyches of American men trying to reconcile the contradictions of masculine fantasy and social reality, as in his screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and in Affliction he creates his most poignant and powerful work. The quiet beauty of the snow-blanketed New Hampshire setting (using Canadian locations) and Schrader's restrained yet intimate cinematic style builds the underlying emotional tensions until they explode in startling close-ups, revealing the repressed fear, rage, and helplessness cracking through Wade's carefully maintained façade. As Rolfe's narration coolly analyzes his brother's affliction, he reveals his own: an emotional remove so complete that he's edited himself out of his family history. The legacy of abuse leaves no one untouched. --Sean Axmaker
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