Being Nick Nolte's agent must be the toughest job in show business. How many times can you tell your client that he's going to play a burned-out boozehound whose heart of gold is only matched in size by his enflamed liver, and still make it sound like the role of a lifetime?
Yet there Nolte is, disappearing into the bottom of a bottle one more time in director Paul Schrader's adaptation of the Russell Banks novel "Affliction." The narrow agenda will truly have paid off if the actor finds an Oscar clutched in his non-drinking hand come March 21. But even though Schrader has given Nolte a better-than-usual platform for his dissipated shtick (certainly superior to the one he had to stand on in last year's preposterous "Afterglow"), the voters who have honored this latest variation on the theme with a "Best Actor" nomination should recognize that we've already been there, done that, and watched Nick throw up on it.
This time, Nolte's scraggly alter ego is Wade Woodhouse, a part-time policeman whose mundane duties in his New Hampshire town are an inadequate distraction from the continuing spectacle of his life falling down around his ears. Wade's inability to come to grips with a messy divorce causes him to hopelessly replay his own anguished family history, throughout which he and younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) suffered the sadistic abuses of their hard-as-nails dad (James Coburn, in a monstrous turn whose own Oscar nod solidifies his status as Hollywood's leading professional bastard).
When a local union boss mysteriously dies during a hunting excursion, Wade embarks on a righteous crusade to uncover the organized evil he's sure lays beneath the alleged accident. It's the only chance at redemption he can identify, but his amateur sleuthing gradually becomes just another of the obsessions that are driving him into manic alienation.
There's plenty to admire in Schrader's vision, and he extracts strong performances from almost every member of his cast. Sissy Spacek is particularly good as Wade's new girlfriend, who's set apart from the ranks of filmdom's long-suffering paramours by displaying at least half a character's worth of motivation. The scenes of snow-blanketed New England locales possess an otherworldly beauty, though they inevitably suffer in comparison to the similar shots in the Coen Brothers' unmatchable "Fargo." Nolte hits the right notes in singing Wade's tortured song, but again, the role is merely a more sophisticated take on a part he can play in his sleep by now. Terming it worthy of Academy recognition is like saying that Mickey deserves an Oscar because you always believe he's a mouse.
Following the overly long, strangely paced "Affliction" through to its end leaves us feeling as confused as Wade. Why is Rolfe the story's voiceover narrator, when his onscreen appearances are few and far between? Why does a tale that spends so much time establishing itself as a small-town mystery with human elements suddenly reverse course into a personal tragedy with criminal trappings? Atom Egoyan's version of Banks' "The Sweet Hereafter" perfectly balanced similar forces, but Schrader can't keep them in their proper alignment.
Don't look for adequate answers in Rolfe's closing speech, which is lifted almost word-for-word from the book, yet here seems to be performing a completely different (and unnecessarily urgent) function. This, the younger sibling tells us, has not been the portrait of one troubled man, but of an entire generation of American males beaten into submission by their violent fathers. Like a dead-end dad, "Affliction" hits us over the head when what we really need is a gift wrapped delicately in metaphor.