Cold Comforts

Lions, cows, wolves, and pigs in winter.

Directed by Paul Schrader
Lions Gate Films

The Hi-Lo Country
Directed by Stephen Frears
Gramercy Pictures

In Dreams

Directed by Neil Jordan
DreamWorks SKG

Babe: Pig in the City

Directed by George Miller
Universal Pictures

Years ago, when he was still a film critic, Paul Schrader wrote an evocative study of the directors Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer that he called Transcendental Style in Cinema. How odd that the style of Schrader’s new movie, Affliction, is as torturously untranscendent as a work of cinema can get. Maybe that’s the point: The tragedy is the protagonist’s inability to transcend his terrible upbringing. Based on a grim novel by the Baron of Bleak, Russell Banks, and set in a frigid town in northern New Hampshire, Affliction tells the story of Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), a part-time police officer and full-time flunky, who’s constitutionally unequipped to survive a succession of personal and professional crises. Wade can’t get on his preadolescent daughter’s wavelength and compensates by suing his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) for custody. Then his mother dies (he finds her in bed, semi-frozen), and he ends up caring for his elderly father (James Coburn), a stuporous and abusive drunk. Grainy, home-movielike flashbacks show Coburn taunting the boy for being a sissy and then beating him senseless when he tries to fight back.

When a wealthy Boston union leader is killed in an apparent hunting accident, Wade has a hunch that the man was murdered. Who done it? Either the only witness, Wade’s buddy Jack (Jim True), or a third party–perhaps at the behest of the town’s capitalist overlord (Holmes Osborne). Late at night, Wade drinks and holds forth on his suspicions in a low rasp over the phone to his younger brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), a Boston academic who subtly feeds the flames of Wade’s alienation. “I get to feeling like a whipped dog,” says Wade. “Someday I’m gonna bite back.”

Affliction is an affectless piece of moviemaking. It features frozen landscapes, gray skies, mud-spattered cars, and long, protracted shots of people walking in and out of buildings that seem to have turned themselves inward to escape the cold. Nothing expresses anything. For much of the film, you can’t decide whether the murder plot is a product of Wade’s escalating paranoia or if Schrader is just inept at shaping a whodunit. As it turns out, the vagueness and even the infelicities are part of Schrader’s design. The film is uncompromising, all of a piece, its desolateness unleavened by incidental pleasures. Not a whodunnit at all, it’s more like a postmodern western, the parable of an unruly patriarch driven to madness by a long line of unruly patriarchs before him; an impotent vigilante in search of something–anything–to shoot.

Wade lives on the edge of his emotions–he has no perspective to retreat to even in a crisis. OK, I can’t take credit for that line. It’s from Rolfe’s literary narration, which is helpful in clarifying people’s motives but ultimately annoying, since only an inexpert storyteller needs that much pompous clarification. It doesn’t help that the waxen, bug-eyed Dafoe inhabits a different universe from the other actors, an effect that Schrader intended but that would have worked better with someone else–Dafoe always acts as if he has beamed down from a Martian theater troupe. He ends up embodying only the movie’s numbing obviousness.

Nolte embodies its volcanic undercurrents, and he keeps Affliction off life support. Like Wade, he’s a heavyweight too big and too unstable for the room. The sagging flesh on that square head encases small, babyish features, and the belching sounds that come out of that barrel chest are like an infant’s squalls after a thousand shots of bourbon and 10 times that many cigarettes. Nolte’s eyes are slits in dough, and his huge gestures might be an attempt to compensate for their tininess. Part of what Nolte conveys is the struggle of a clay man to convey a lot of elusive thoughts–a hopeless prospect that only leads to rage and despair. At one point, he grabs and twists his face into a Munchian scream. Wade, it turns out, has a horrendous toothache, but Nolte isn’t playing the physical pain. He’s playing the metaphor–the toothache as existential agony.

Not too many actors could have embodied this titan’s dominating father, but Coburn is Saturn-like in his awfulness. At once lethargic and vicious, he is roused from his decrepitude only by the prospect of inflicting discomfort or pain. When Wade’s girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek) confronts him about a crude remark, he fixes her with a leer while licking salt off the back of his hand–a gesture more wolfishly obscene than anything he could say. We know why she packs her bags after that and could have done without Dafoe’s concluding lines about the lives of boys and men beaten by their fathers whose capacity for love and hope has been destroyed at birth.

Perhaps I’d have responded more fully to Affliction if it had been in Swedish. In movies such as Winter Light (1963), we give Ingmar Bergman the benefit of the doubt because he grew up with 20 hour nights, herring, and Strindberg. Dyspeptic storytelling is in his blood. The first time I saw Affliction, it struck me as both arid and pretentious; the second, arriving with no narrative expectations, I found myself more tolerant of the pacing and more drawn in by the performances. If you don’t have the luxury of seeing the movie twice, you’d do well to leave your hopes for a good thriller at the door–unless the thrill you seek is that of a great, gutsy actor on the high wire.

S am Peckinpah might have been fortunate in croaking before he could realize his dream of bringing Max Evans’ post-World War II western novel The Hi-Lo Country to the screen. This is another of those Last of the Cowboys sagas, with the young rancher-narrator, Pete, falling under the spell of an embodiment of the Old West, here a character called Big Boy. He also falls in love with a married woman, Mona, the embodiment of Sex–the kind of woman who sends men into spasms of uncontrollable lust, such that they’d kill their good buddies or drink themselves into an early grave. When Big Boy and Mona start doing the wild thing, Pete finds himself pulled in two different directions, neither especially interesting. Mixed in with this is a lot of elegiac folderol about herding the old-fashioned way, on horseback, rather than in trucks or boxcars.

If Peckinpah had made this movie it might have had some of the ingratiating rowdiness of his The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) or Junior Bonner (1972). But Brit Stephen Frears directs in a distanced and self-consciously classical style. He keeps the horizon line at the center of the frame, so that the movie’s point of view seems static even when the images are gorgeously evocative. It’s pretty, but it’s all at arm’s length, with an aura of doom that palls our enjoyment of even the picture’s well-staged fisticuffs and bronco busting.

As Big Boy, Woody Harrelson is a pop-eyed cartoon, but I admit to finding his hamminess–and his pronunciation of such phrases as “You scum-suckin’ dawgs”–hugely entertaining. Less companionable is Billy Crudup’s Pete, whose high-arched cheekbones are emblems of the movie’s frozen classicism. But what sinks The Hi-Lo Country is Patricia Arquette’s Mona, who’s supposed to convey sleepy sensuality but seems merely to be on Quaaludes. Whatever surprises Arquette might once have had are long gone; the only thing mysterious about her is those long, distracting fangs.

A nnette Bening, on the verge of becoming a major actress before she got sucked into Warren Beatty’s orbit, burned up on entry. But she’s astonishingly vivid in her new film, In Dreams. It’s a poetic but ultimately disappointing stab at expressionistic horror, courtesy of Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, 1992). Bening plays a children’s book author plagued by dreams of little girls being lured away by a big, bad wolf in human form. No student of the genre will be surprised to learn that she’s established some kind of psychic link to a serial killer (Robert Downey Jr.). Besides Bening, the film’s chief interest is the unmatched intensity that Jordan brings to her visions, which are both lyrical and ghastly, and so frightening that it’s hard to imagine how the movie can deliver a demon worthy of them. It can’t, of course, which is the problem with mainstream horror pictures: The more deliriously abstract and unhinged their imagery, the more of a clunk there is when the evil actually materializes and the genre conventions kick in.

Bening has one amazing scene. In despair, she slashes her wrists and ends up in a hospital, where she attempts to explain her bond with the killer to a psychiatrist (Stephen Rea, with an incongruous New York accent). Both haggard and elfin, she moves in and out of sanity, now distraught with grief, now giddy with superior insight. Someone else made her trash her house and scrawl imprecations on the walls, but cutting her wrists, she says, giggling, was all her own work. Bening plays the scene on a cascade of emotion, so that she really seems to be speaking from a different world. In Dreams betrays her supernatural brilliance. The last half-hour is like a séance after the ghost has left. Everyone’s at the table still trying to get worked up, but the spell has been irreparably broken.

I want to thank critic Michael Sragow for encouraging me to catch the commercial flop Babe: Pig in the City before the movie ended its nightmarishly brief run in theaters. (Sragow unfashionably named it the best film of the year in SF Weekly.) You could wait for video, but if you can find Pig in the City playing anywhere on a big screen–an hour away, in a strip mall, only at 2 p.m., in the middle of a blizzard–see it, because you’d have to go back to the silents to find its like visually, and no silent picture could have had this kind of soundtrack. Directed by George Miller, the movie is in a different league from its unassuming predecessor. The talking animals and discombobulated cityscapes are so exquisite that I started to snivel about 10 minutes in and more or less kept it up for the next hour and a half. This is my candidate for the most overlooked big budget film of the decade, maybe of the century. Pearls before swine, indeed.