Director Paul Schrader's ability to create a poetic world with fine cinematic brushstrokes becomes apparent once again in "Affliction." This American gothic series of portraits recalls the menacing worlds of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, where everyday objects and ordinary people oddly hint at unseen and often undesired secrets lurking around every bend. There is something horrifyingly staid and unsettling about the images of family and friends encountered in this film. Each and every person and place is tinted with a familiar tonality, but shaded combinations somehow appear to be strangely out of balance. The snow-filled background of a rustic countryside is troubled by objects inferring the presence of a darker, hidden reality. The shutting of venetian blinds on the window of an office, car headlights beaming along a darkened road, the twisted letters of a construction sign, and the quirky neon light in a diner window are among the images tempered with a hint of danger.

The narrator tells us that "This is the story of my older brother Wade's criminal behavior and disappearance." The film opens on Halloween evening, a time when, according to tradition, spirits of the dead freely roam the earth. Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) has managed, in his well-intentioned ill-advised way, to smuggle away his daughter Jill (Brigid Tierney) from ex-wife Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), hoping against hope to share a pleasant evening with her. Though dressed up for "trick or treating," the girl is withheld from her childhood celebrations by a man who is insensitive to everyone else's needs (including his daughter's) because ultimately he is incapable of dealing with his own. (Wade's awareness of himself as a man displaced within his own skin is later revealed when he admits to his daughter, "I'm nothing anymore.")

As local law enforcer in economically depressed Lawford, New Hampshire, Wade is familiar to everyone as a man obsessively preoccupied with work, drinking and marital problems. His meager financial situation means that he is also forced to perform demeaning jobs for a prominent citizen in this apparently tranquil New England town. As a man whose life is spiraling downward, he constantly battles with inner demons. Estranged from wife and daughter, the strongest bond remaining in his life is that shared with his father, Glen "Pop" Whitehouse (James Coburn), and their relationship is a fiercely antagonistic one. Life inside the Whitehouse home has never been easy or simple. The past returns sporadically in black and white flashback sequences showing an alcoholic father, a battered wife, and three frequently beaten children. Wade's present detachment as an adult presumably results from a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional family. His ineptitude in dealing competently with love and duty has managed to cripple him emotionally. He badly needs to extract a deep-seated pain, but never manages to reach its source.

When Wade's partner, Jack Hewitt (Jim True), is hired by Evan Twombley (Sean McCann), to go deer hunting and assist him in obtaining an impressive trophy, the unlucky client ends up with a rifle hole blown straight through his body. Wade is troubled by the thought that this "shooting accident" might, in reality, be a cover up for murder. Suspicions concerning Jack as well as Mel Gordon (Steve Adams) and Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne) as perpetrators begin to grow in Wade's mind, which add more mental and emotional confusion to the pattern of self-destruction already at work inside him. Wade believes that LaRiviere and Gordon could have hired Jack to kill Twombley as a method of preventing any interference with plans of purchasing available real estate to build a lucrative ski resort in the area. On the trail of a possible crime, he cannot ignore his duties as a police officer, but soon begins to see phantoms all around him. (Even the warning of the township's librarian that "things are not always as they appear" seems filled with strange meaning.) Filled with inner turmoil and troubled by a constant toothache, he painfully continues his search for the truth.

Russell Banks, author of the acclaimed novel upon which the film is based, tells us "The fact that Wade's life has come undone, that he can't build an ordinary, simple, American middle-class life, put it together and hold it together, and be kind to his daughter and nice to his ex-wife - the fact that these things are not available to him, can be explained several ways. And the way he doesn't want it to happen is by accident, that it was all just an accident. The way he wants it to be explained, is that it was caused directly - that somebody shot a man on purpose and did it for money. If it was an accident, then his own fate is an accident. The "murder" is simply a metaphor. It's a way for Wade to explain his own fate."

Wade's new girlfriend, Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek) is a soft-spoken waitress, who finds herself both attracted and torn in her relationship with this troubled man. Wade has proposed marriage to her, more in hope that he might resolve personal problems regarding child custody and visitation rights than out of love for Margie. It doesn't take a wide stretch of the imagination to picture how difficult the Whitehouse men can be with women when Wade's father confronts Margie with such statements as, "You've gotten old. And there's not a goddam thing a woman can do about that" or "Don't you sass me, godammit." Margie charges head on toward a rude awakening as she becomes more involved with Wade.

This story of lives hidden away under the quiet rooftops between Littleton and Calamount is a parable rooted in heritage and heredity of how families manage to destroy themselves unintentionally by disclaiming and ignoring responsibilities. At the same time, it is a painful portrait of the entangled web such people find themselves in.

After a tormented confrontation with himself in the mirror, Wade retires to the darkened corner of a room and calls his brother Rolfe (Willem Defoe) during a moment of desperate anxiety. (Wade's younger brother Elbourne was killed in Vietnam some years earlier. Rolfe managed to escape the turbulent homestead by leaving years before.) Wade, at home once again after the breakup of two marriages and the death of his mother, now lives continuously on the edge and manages, on this one occasion, to reach out to someone. He is a fixture from another time, displaced by his own heritage, and moving more frequently toward violence. He bears the earmarks of his father's personality and has difficulty trying to escape his fate. The similarity between father and son can even be seen in their carriage and their habits. When this profound truth can no longer be denied, the father confronts him directly and says, "You. I know you. You're my blood. You're a goddam piece of my heart."

These two men from separate generations try to move inauspiciously in rooms that are too small for their stature and bulk. Watching them reminds one of towering figures from an American past (like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln), but this particular New Hampshire father and son are surviving remnants of a past that no longer manages to fit easily into the present. Their giant frames are rooted in another kind of world, one where distance is measured and maintained for protection and self-preservation, where awkward attempts at self-revelation or affection usually end in acts of violence. They are considered dangerous by a world no longer capable of understanding or dealing with them. Their behavior is destructive both to others and to themselves. They are like dinosaurs in a winter landscape.

Writer/director Schrader, who has previously given us overwhelming ("The Comfort of Strangers") and sumptuous works ("Mishima"), has surpassed himself with this new film which might well be considered his best to date. Deceptively complicated, it appears amazingly simple, very much like a series of patches cross-stitched on an American quilt. It is clear where the tale is heading throughout the film, but the completion of the canvas is, nonetheless, an excruciatingly painful and honest one. It may not be to everyone's taste, but it is a sturdy piece of fiction powerfully delivered. The last image of Wade sitting in his father's house and swilling whisky, aware of, yet oblivious to, the garage in the background (a terrifying pastoral seen through a picture window bordered by a tree and snow) is perhaps the most riveting portrait in the entire gallery of images. "This notion of male violence," Schrader says, "particularly as manifested in this country, is born in the blood, bred in the bone, passed from father to son. This is a very important theme. It is, in fact, the affliction of the title."

Nolte and Coburn are astoundingly primeval in the scenes they share. There is something both touching and frightening about watching this pair as they mesmerize us with a terrifyingly realistic portrayal of father and son.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett