Affliction and The Ice Storm (review)

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Film Appreciation 101

There are flicks you check out hoping for a rip-roaring story, one that will sweep you away and make you forget your own boring, miserable life for a while — popcorn flicks you come to wanting nothing more than a good time. You’ll buy the video and wear it out.

And then there are films like Affliction and The Ice Storm, which you don’t enjoy so much as appreciate — films after which you stagger from the theater feeling beaten up and thanking whatever gods there may be that at least your life isn’t as lousy as the ones you just saw depicted on the screen. These are the videos available for rental only, because they’re too depressing for anyone to want to buy them and watch them over and over.
Like father, like son
The only reason you can walk out of Affliction not feeling as if you’ve been kicked in the gut — maybe only kicked in the shin — is because you can see disaster coming from the opening frame. Not in that Hollywood way, where you can predict exactly what’s gonna transpire and precisely what injuries each character will sustain before good triumphs. No. There is no good to triumph here.

Affliction opens with a voiceover by Rolfe Whitehouse (Willem Dafoe), alluding in somber, defeated tones to the catastrophe his brother Wade (Nick Nolte) will precipitate. The lone local policeman in a small New Hampshire town, Wade is barely a shell of a man. He terrifies his young daughter and picks fights with his ex-wife and her new husband. He can’t make a connection with the only person who genuinely cares for him, his girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek). He lives on beer and cigarettes. His investigation of a recent shotgun death is pushing him beyond mere investigative curiosity to outright paranoia. He’s not a rotten person, but an empty one.

Surely part of the problem is the isolation and desolation of living in a small town — when everyone knows your history and your business, it’s almost impossible to change or grow beyond those expectations. And Wade’s history is dark. In grainy flashbacks, like demented 8mm family films, we meet Wade’s father, Glen (James Coburn), a nasty drunkard who abused his wife and young sons both verbally and physically. The story of Wade’s past unfolds alongside the story of his present, and the sense of impending doom grows as these stories develop and eventually overlap. When Wade explains that sometimes he “gets to feeling like a whipped dog — some day I’m gonna bite back,” you believe him.

Most chilling of all is Wade’s brother, Rolfe. He fled to Boston to become a college professor, and his occasional voiceovers throughout the film lead one to believe that at least one brother escaped their father’s dismal legacy. But when Rolfe finally enters the story, it’s clear that while his brother’s anger is on fire, Rolfe’s is smoldering. Rolfe may be just as dangerous as Wade, and as their father — and when his anger finally bubbles to the surface, it will be all the more shocking to those around him for being unforeseen.

Based on the novel by Russell Banks (who also wrote the basis for The Sweet Hereafter, another uncomfortable but brilliant film), Affliction is not a pleasant film. Its characters are complex and real, and every performance is a masterpiece — especially Coburn’s and Nolte’s — but I found it difficult to get emotionally involved with the people depicted.

But maybe that’s part of the film’s point. In a story about how unloving men pass on their tradition of anger and violence and emotional detachment to their sons, it demonstrates, perhaps, how these men feel — or don’t feel — about the people around them. Affliction‘s characters leave me feeling distant and cold. Is that what Glen and Wade and men like them feel for their own families and friends? It’s a chilling thought.

A tragedy of manners
The Ice Storm isolates its characters, too — in a sterile Connecticut suburb, during the cultural turmoil of Watergate and Vietnam.

In the echoing corridors and huge rooms of the upper-middle-class homes of the Hoods and the Carvers, despairing parents and their pragmatic teens are all searching for meaning in their empty lives, for something to do in the wasteland of suburbia. Ben Hood (In and Out‘s Kevin Kline) is bored with his wife, Elena (Pleasantville‘s Joan Allen), with commuting, with his job in New York. But he’s also bored with his affair with Janey Carver (Alien Resurrection‘s Sigourney Weaver). Elena envies the simple freedom she sees in her daughter pedaling her bicycle through town. Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan) is such a nonentity in his children’s lives that he returns from a business trip to find they didn’t even realize he was gone.

Their parents wrapped up in their own misery, the Hood and Carver children are left to their own devices, and they fare, on the whole, somewhat better than their elders. Mikey Carver (Deep Impact‘s Elijah Wood) and Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) tentatively explore sex as their parents grow jaded with it. Yet there’s no affection or even enjoyment in their explorations — they’re practical and efficient, as if they’ve seen that emotional involvement has only driven their elders apart.

And where the grownups speak only in half sentences, unable to complete their thoughts, unable to really talk to one another, Wendy and her brother, Paul (Pleasantville‘s Tobey Maguire), actually communicate — again, though, it’s down-to-earth subjects that they discuss: the Watergate situation (Nixon is the only person that gets a rise out of Wendy), and the state of their parents’ marriage. Wendy and Paul, in fact, seem to know more about their parents’ relationship than their parents do.

Sex, drugs, shoplifting, violence, booze — these are the things the Hoods and Carvers turn to for relief. They don’t work, of course, and when a Thanksgiving ice storm freezes the world, weighing trees and power lines down, bringing everything to a halt in the silent cold, these people are finally at home. Even in the face of a tragedy the storm brings, the adults can’t connect and instead ball up into themselves, leaving their children to take whatever comfort they can from one another.

Unlike Affliction‘s Wade Whitehouse, all the characters here turn their anger and bitterness mostly on themselves. But although the cast is once again uniformly excellent, once again I find myself unable to really feel for these people. Maybe I should be glad I can’t identify so easily with them. Disturbing and discomfiting, The Ice Storm is a slice of lonely, desperate reality that I hope I never visit.

viewed at a public multiplex screening

The Ice Storm
viewed at home on a small screen

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