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They say, the worse things get for the main character in a movie, the better they get for the viewer. The same could be said for the actor playing that character, as Nick Nolte demonstrates in Affliction. Together with director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Nolte makes harrowing, compelling art out of New Hampshire lawman Wade Whitehouse's slow, inexorable descent into madness. 

You can't stop watching this movie, despite the annoying voice-over narration and armchair psychology delivered by Willem Defoe as Wade's younger brother. Both Wade and his younger brother started life as victims of their alcoholic father's physical and emotional abuse. Even after they leave their mockery of a home, Glen Whitehouse (demonically brought to life by James Coburn) shadows his sons' lives. 

The younger brother deals with his childhood by leading an emotionally remote existence in a spot as physically remote from New Hampshire as he can get. Wade toughs it out, continuing to live in the same town as his father but resolving never to repeat his father's cruelty. 

The story begins Halloween with Wade already teetering on the edge. When plans to visit his young daughter disintegrate, Wade finds temporary respite in the arms of his longtime love, waitress Margie (Sissy Spacek). But when Wade and Margie visit Wade's parents, Wade discovers his mother's lifeless body in an upstairs bedroom and his father too drunk to know she's dead. Wade's attempts to help his father come to terms with his mother's death soon create deadly consequences of their own. 

Sissy Spacek and Coburn support Nolte with riveting performances. Spacek shines in a delicate, loving role. And Coburn returns to the screen in a huge way as the most ferociously scary monster around. 

With Affliction, Nick Nolte reaffirms his position as America's best actor. One expects great performances from him, and he never disappoints. Since bursting on the scene in Rich Man, Poor Man, Nolte's given one amazing performance after another. His range includes comedy and comedy. His Lucky, the studly plumber in last year's Afterglow, glowed with nuance, while his role in this year's Thin Red Line stood out as a study of missed opportunity. Affliction showcases Nolte at his gut-wrenching best. 

Joan Fuchsman 

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