Mr Schrader's feeling for snow

Film byJonathan Romney

Paul Schrader is one of American cinema's great underachievers. An intellectual cinephile who's always seemed out of place in Hollywood, he made his name as a critic with a book on cinema's great austere trio - Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer - and even today his enthusiasms are most likely to be sparked by a sombre aesthete like the Russian director Alexander Sokurov. He became famous for writing Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver while in the depths of self-destructive depression, and as a director has been responsible for some of the most individual and uncompromising films made by a member of the "Movie Brat" generation: Hardcore, American Gigolo (the glossy LA life remodelled - and re-moralled - after Robert Bresson's Pickpocket), and the daringly operatic Mishima.

In the 1990s, though, Schrader has largely worked in a minor, even anonymous key, often taking on what seemed cynical hired-gun projects - a slick adaptation of Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, a futile special-effects trifle called Witch Hunt, and the recent Elmore Leonard adaptation Touch, which decisively sank any claims Schrader might have as a humorist.

Schrader may, however, be clambering out of the trough. He has another collaboration with Scorsese forthcoming and his own latest film, Affliction, has received more praise than anything he's done in years. Based on a novel by Russell Banks, it's a return to the introspective, intimate mode of Schrader's underrated Light of Day (1987), a vignette about small-time rockers, and his last great film, Light Sleeper (1991), a taut essay in urban minimalism. Affliction certainly shows renewed confidence and conviction, and it seems that at long last Schrader has picked a subject he cares about. But the film comes across as a sombre, rather studious miniature, and for fans of Schrader at his best, it's not really enough.

At the very least, Affliction is intensely atmospheric - snowbound with great swathes of ominous whiteness filling the screen. Set in New Hampshire, it's photographed by Paul Sarossy, who recently shot another wintry Banks adaptation, Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, but conjures up a very different starkness here. Affliction also has an outstanding central performance from Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse, the more than thoroughly afflicted lone policeman of a small town called Lawford. Wade is a disillusioned deadbeat, seen by no one as a figure of authority and by everyone as a good ol' boy ready to supplement his income with dreary chores. He's at war with his ex-wife; he's scarred by a miserable childhood; and there's a mystery death in the neighbourhood. Throw in alcohol and toothache, and you can imagine the conflagration ahead.

Nolte is one of the few actors who could carry the weight of this role and bring out its finer resonances. He's so robust, so rudely bear-like, that he has an unexpected edge when dealing with wounded, dysfunctional characters. His Whitehouse rages some of the time, but mostly he slumps and sags; he's like a huge, ungainly boy who's aged before he's had a chance to grow up or, in this densely forested setting, like a huge log of a man, felled before his time. Nolte's basso growl, sometimes barely penetrable, has the authority to make us pay that extra attention to what he's saying.

This is very much a film about maleness and the harm that men - rivals, fathers, employers - do to each other. The real villain of the piece is Wade's boorish, abusive dad, and that's the film's biggest failing: both in the present day and the ungainly hand-held flashbacks, James Coburn's Pop is too much the raging ogre to be believable. And the women in the story have little to do; only Mary Beth Hurt (the director's wife) makes a pithy impression as Wade's ex, while Sissy Spacek, more than due for a comeback, is required only to display tolerance followed by despair.

Although I haven't read the book, I'd guess that Schrader's script owes too much to Banks's original to really get out and work under its own steam. Affliction feels uncomfortably like a novel: there are too many strands to coalesce easily, and the film is hampered with a voice-over (from a stilted, out-of-place Willem Dafoe as Wade's brother) that keeps interjecting to tell us what the story's about. This is particularly damaging at the end; there's nothing like having a moral spelled out by a character we neither know nor particularly care about.

That's all the more disappointing since the closing voice-over comes in on a powerful culminating image, which Schrader coolly holds for as long as it takes: Wade sitting wrecked, while the film's single most dramatic tableau takes place outside the picture window. For long stretches, Affliction feels like elegantly executed TV drama, but it's at moments like this that it takes off and really soars with the imagery - snowscapes bathed in ink-blue night, a hunter's clownish orange livery against the whiteness. Affliction might not have been half the film it is had Schrader not had Nolte and Sarossy on his team. But, at the very least, it's a good sign that he's bothering again. I like to think that the next ten years could be his.

"Affliction" (15) opens in London on 19 February and then at selected cinemas nationwide

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think