Film Scouts Reviews


by Karen Jaehne

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Paul Schrader has rounded up a helluvalotta talent to create a "Fargo" for unrepentant neo-realists. Set in Lawford, a desolate backwoods town not far from the Canadian border, the story revolves around the plaid-shirt pessimism and hopelessly stupid ways that people in small towns prove that Freud and Darwin are correct. They grow up to be like their parents, and the survival of the fittest is a ruthless principle of life.

The characters are as sterile as their cold environment. The plot involves Wade Whitehouse trying to rise above his divorce and little law-enforcement gig as a crossing guard. By the time we meet Glen Whitehouse, viciously enacted by a bloated James Coburn, we know that Wade can't do much of anything, and his father will be the death of him.

A real estate developer is buying up all the land, and a few locals are trying to get in on the action, but Wade sees momentous things looming behind this, although it's the only good thing to happen in the second half of the 20th century to most of these spent farm towns. A businessman gets shot, and Wade envisions the Mafia, then his buddy hired as an assassin. The way the story is filmed, we are encouraged at first to believe Wade's delusions. Slowly - in fact, painfully slowly - we come to see that Wade was broken by his pa. And there weren't never no other way fer things to turn out... and finally, after two aching hours, it's over.

But not without a narrative to kick it while it's writhing on the ground! A voice-over by Willem Dafoe, who plays the younger, smarter brother turned college professor, tells the story throughout, trying to orient us. His point of view comes from the other end of Wade's distracted and scattered phone calls, but he could only make sense of it all after the principals were dead.

At the end, Willem's voice interprets the whole movie for us - just in case we missed the point. It's about male violence, and how it's an affliction, and men can't escape from it, and I think he uses a couple phrases like "legacy of machismo" and "pathology of the father" - ouch! In short, he thinks we are as stupid as these characters and need an explanation that is too high-flown for people like them to understand anyway. Schrader may have come from such a community, as many others did, but this approach to his past does not reflect well on the time he has spent becoming an educated, insightful and artistically sensitive man. Which I believe he is!

Schrader seems obsessed with violence. It is at the core of all his films (including that wonderful big-budget experimental film, Mishima). The many manifestations of violence are impressive, but this film, has neither style nor insight - beyond the "Affliction" of its title. To call male violence an affliction is, however, to grant men their animal excuse: oh well, he's beastly because he's only a beast. It's not only tautological, it's as dull-witted as its subject.

But I was even more offended by something in the press book: the note that novelist Paul Auster supposedly said, "The combination of Russell Banks and Paul Schrader in an artistic context proves the existence of God." Sorry, boys, but She works in far more mysterious ways than that.  

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