There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
A troubled outsider gropes toward his inevitable cathartic breakdown in Affliction, but this story isn’t much like the other troubled-outsider dramas that director Paul Schrader has written for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) or himself (Mishima, Light Sleeper). It’s too rueful, too naturalistic, too snowy. As the director has said, it’s “a Banks-Schrader film rather than the other way around,” an acknowledgment that the movie contains more of novelist Russell Banks’ rustic sensibility than Schrader’s urban one.
Like Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter, which Atom Egoyan made into a more stylish film in 1997, Affliction is set in a wintry small town. Local policeman Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is basically a school crossing guard, but he imagines a more important role for himselfand more significant crimes to match that role. He thinks he may have found his big case when a Boston union executive is shot while hunting with Wade’s pal, local guide Jack Hewitt (Jim True). Wade discusses the death by phone with his brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), a Boston University history professor who casually feeds Wade’s conspiracy theories: The dead man may have been about to testify in a corruption case, or perhaps he opposed his rapacious son-in-law’s plan to evict most of Lawford, N.H.,’s residents for a ski resort.
Things may seem to be coming together for Wade’s career, but his life is simultaneously falling apart. Angry that his 9-year-old daughter is uncomfortable with him, Wade has impulsively decided to sue his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) for custody, an undertaking that even his new lawyer suggests is quixotic. His fitful romance with waitress Margie (Sissy Spacek) is currently harmonious, but then Wade makes the mistake of taking her to visit his father, Glen (James Coburn), an alcoholic whose bullying still haunts him (and the film, via grainy home-horror-movie flashbacks). Plus Wade has a terrible toothache.
The latter, of course, is not Wade’sor the story’strue affliction. The big man with the little job suffers from too much drink, too much rage, and too little perspective on his life. He doesn’t want to be his hateful father, but the only way he knows how to reject that legacy is with the unthinking violence Glen turned on him as a childwhich will drive away everyone who’s essential to Wade’s vision of a normal domestic existence.
In such films as American Gigolo, Schrader has allowed form to overwhelm thematic or emotional content. Here he goes to the opposite extreme, making a film that’s resolutely plain. The results of this self-abnegation are not altogether satisfying, but if it’s no The Sweet Hereafter, the film is not as loosely structured as it first seems. When the metaphorical rug is finally pulled from underneath Wade’s feet, the ensuing cataclysm is fast, fierce, and expertly choreographed. Fire joins ice in the tale’s inventory of implacable forces.
Affliction is Nolte’s film, but Coburn is stunning in his smaller but no less essential role. Some may quibble with Dafoe’s detachment, but it suits his role as both the story’s narrator and the town’s one successful refugee. Indeed, all the performers inhabit their roles impressively, with the exception of rural Quebec, the film’s actual location, which looks little like the northern New Hampshire towns where the tale is set. That small flaw will distract only the people who know the area, though, and even those viewers should recognize the authenticity of the film’s psychic landscape.
With his doughy body and lank, greasy hair, The General’s Martin Cahill doesn’t look anything like the man from whom he reportedly took his nickname, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But then Cahill, one of Ireland’s most celebrated modern-day thieves, wasn’t much on glamour. Brendan Gleeson, the actor who deftly portrays Cahill in John Boorman’s remarkable film, is said to closely resemble the fleshy master thief, which is one of the reasons Boorman cast himand one of the reasons the writer-director had so much trouble financing the low-starpower movie. Imagine The Van as a black-and-white true-crime flick: The General is shabbily genuine and virtually charisma-free. Not for Cahill the pomp and circumstance of the Mafia; “We’re not fucking Italians,” he protests when one of his cronies awkwardly hugs him.
The film opens with Cahill’s 1994 assassination and then spins back to his childhood, when the boy (played by The Butcher Boy’s Eamon Owens) began to learn his trade stealing potatoes for his mother and siblings, and cream cakes for his girlfriend, Frances. Cahill fights for family, friends, and his housing-project neighborhood, Hollyfield; his loyalties go no further. He has no use for Ireland, the Catholic church, the Irish Republican Army, the Ulster loyalists, or the police. None have earned Cahill’s loyalty, and none ever will.
As he grows from petty thief to crime boss, Cahill wants only to support his children, help his mates, and embarrass the authorities. Though some of his accomplices protest that the mastermind deserves a larger share, Cahill splits the proceeds of his increasingly daring robberies equally. He doesn’t drink, smoke, or (unlike some of his confederates) use drugs; his wardrobe of T-shirts and parkas never changes, even after he manages to steal the only Vermeer in a private collection from a well-alarmed country house. His principal indulgence is an unusual arrangement with his wife, the grown-up Frances (Black Velvet Band singer Maria Doyle Kennedy), and her younger sister Tina (Angeline Ball); both share his bed and bear his children. (This is one of the personal quirks that ultimately undercut Cahill’s status as a Dublin folk hero, as well as an odd narrative overlap with Hilary and Jackie.)
Ultimately, Cahill’s downfall is his audacity, which brings full-time police surveillance (and harassment), as well as the enmity of the IRA. Boorman’s account makes it clear, however, that Cahill’s battle has always been a lost cause. Long before his aging gang members begin to lose their enthusiasm for heistsand before Cahill takes horrifyingly brutal measures against a courier he suspects of skimmingthe General has already lost his territory. Early in the film, Hollyfield is demolished. Cahill and his family stay even after the buildings are razed, ultimately moving into a tent, but their stand is hopeless. The General’s battle for the old neighborhood is lost, rendering the rest of his quest absurd.
Parts of The General were shot in tenements reconstructed for The Boxer, but the film makes a more apt pairing with Michael Collins. Both Collins and Cahill aimed to be invisible, but Cahill’s attemptshiding his face behind motorcycle helmets, ski masks, and his handswere mostly futile. The best way to disappear, as Collins demonstrated, was to blend in, which was the last thing Cahill wanted. He insisted on being an outsidera satisfying but ultimately fatal stance.
Boorman’s script is based on a factual account of Cahill’s life, but it fictionalizes such supporting characters as the gangster’s faithful lieutenant Noel Curley (Adrian Dunbar) and his police nemesis Ned Kenny (Jon Voight, working with Boorman for the first time since Deliverance, and employing a persuasive Irish accent). Although lawyers made Boorman cut some of his favorite lines, the remaining dialogue is still pungent and revealing. The General is a small film, constructed from telling incidents, like the scene where Cahill, discovering that a newly stolen gold record isn’t really made of gold, breaks it in two. (Cahill in fact once stole a “Dueling Banjos” gold record from Boorman’s Irish home.) Such moments combine into a cogent likeness of Cahill, a man who supposedly stole $60 million in his life but lined up every week for his dole money.
Jessie is a healthy, well-adjusted Seattle assassin, but she’s got a problem: When she dozes, she dreams of another Jessie, an annoyingly vulnerable heiress on her honeymoon in Jamaica with her husband, Brian. The other Jessie has dreams, too, and they frighten her: She sees herself as a pitiless, man-hating killer. Of course, these women need each otheror at least each other’s qualities. Tough Jessie finds herself weakening when she falls for an intended victim (named Brian, naturally), while gentle Jessie needs new strength when she fears that her Brian means to kill her for her money.
The fragmented-persona scenario of Raúl Ruiz’s Shattered Image is not exactly fresh, either for the Paris-based Chilean director or for art-thriller makers in general. The names Nicolas Roeg, Alain Resnais, and Alain Robbe-Grillet come quickly to mind, although doppelgängers also feature in such renowned mystifiers as Vertigo, That Obscure Object of Desire, and The Double Life of Véronique. Indeed, in Three Lives and Only One Death, the only previous Ruiz film booked in Washington for more than a one-shot repertory screening, Marcello Mastroianni plays four different but eventually overlapping characters. By comparison, Shattered Image’s cracked psyche is barely a simple fracture.
The press kit touts Shattered Image as the first of Ruiz’s nearly 100 films to be made in English, which is not true, but it is certainly the director’s first Hollywood project. It’s an odd choice: The script is the first big-screen project penned by American television producer-writer Duane Poole, whose credits include Hart to Hart and the Love Boat TV movies. (Poole’s screenplay made the trip from L.A. to Paris via producer Barbet Schroeder, one of the few contemporary French directors to work successfully in Hollywood.) No wonder the result is considerably more literal-minded than Ruiz’s typical work. Whereas the director’s other films prize enigma and hallucinationLife Is a Dream is the exemplary Ruiz titlethis one fits together altogether too neatly. At the climactic moment, there’s even a shot of the titular shattered image.
Perhaps Ruiz is riffing ironically on the expectations of the mainstream American audience, invoking La Femme Nikita by casting Anne Parillaud as the two Jessies and, uh, Sliver by casting William Baldwin as both Brians. It’s easy to see Shattered Image, however, as just another example of a laboriously compromised international coproduction: Parillaud for the French viewers, Baldwin for the American ones. This would also explain why the movie identifies Vancouver as Seattle, when there’s no particular reason to set half the action in Seattle other than the fact that it’s a U.S. city (unless I’ve missed out on Grungetown’s newly acquired reputation as a hotbed of miniskirted hit women).
Thanks in no small part to veteran cinematographer Robby Müller, Shattered Image is something to behold, even if its visual motifsmirrors, blades, fishare as expected as gentle Jessie’s turn to island wisdom (see Roeg’s Eureka) and the two Jessies’ increasing bond (see Roeg’s Performance). Despite its attempts at psychological insight and feminist analysis, Poole’s script is basically straight-to-video material. Ruiz gives it class and witand the spookiest cinematic use of “Away in a Manger” everbut by the time all the narrative shards have been primly reassembled, even the director’s detractors may
be wishing for a bit of his trademark ambiguity.CP