FILM

Minor masterpieces

Brilliant acting graces two unconventional tales

Brian D. Johnson February 8 1999
FILM

Minor masterpieces

Brilliant acting graces two unconventional tales

Brian D. Johnson February 8 1999

Minor masterpieces

FILM

Brilliant acting graces two unconventional tales

Brian D. Johnson

At the recent Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles, they were not hard to pick out of the celebrity crowd— two ravaged, unsmiling faces grimly enduring a night of gush and glamour. Nick Nolte and Bill Murray were both up for awards. Nominated for Affliction, Nolte watched as the uncontainable Jim Carrey, with a canary-eating grin, brandished the best actor prize for The Truman Show. Nominated for Rushmore, Murray saw his bid for best supporting actor fall to Carrey’s co-star Ed Harris. That Nolte and Murray lost is no surprise. Affliction and Rushmore—which open this month in Canada—are small, understated tales, movies in a minor key that resist Hollywood formula so obstinately it is hard to get a handle on them. Both films leave something to be desired. But Nolte and Murray give astonishing performances, acting with the sort of deft brilliance that seldom gets the attention it deserves.

Affliction is one of the most Canadian films never made by Canadians. It is a bleak, spare drama full of snow, where pain is anesthetized by slugs of Canadian Club and a narrator (Willem Dafoe) says things like, “It snowed the day of the funeral,” and “The snow line had descended from Canada weeks before.” In fact, Affliction was filmed mostly in rural Quebec, with several Canadian actors filling out supporting roles, but it is set in New Hampshire. And like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, it is based on

a novel by American author Russell Banks. Writer-director Paul Schrader, who is best known for scripting Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, adapts the 1989 novel with clinical fidelity, and a cold-eyed starkness that makes Egoyan’s film seem lush by comparison.

Nolte stars as Wade, a man drowning in failure. He works as the only policeman in a dead little town named Lawford where there is so little going on that he also works as the crossing guard and snowplow driver. Wade, who drinks beer and smokes dope on the job, worries why he gets no respect. Divorced from Lillian (Mary Beth Hurt), he is losing his grip in a custody fight for their daughter.

And he is haunted by flashbacks to the violent abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father Games Coburn). Wade hopes to make everything better by proposing marriage to his good-natured girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek). But his paranoia takes a nasty swerve after a union boss called Twombley (Sean McCann) dies from a gunshot while deer-hunting. Wade suspects a murder conspiracy.

With Affliction’s flat narrative, Schrader explores the psychosis of male violence, but much more elliptically than in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Although there is an agonizing scene of Wade extracting his tooth with pliers, the brutality lurks mostly beneath the

surface. In fact, the director frames his spare images with such restraint that at times the tone feels stilted. Perhaps he is being too faithful to Banks: with entire passages from the novel dumped into the narration, the script often seems dead-on-the-page. And the plot’s expository payoff, lifted directly from the book, is too pat. But, along with Coburn and Spacek, Nolte makes Affliction worth seeing—the way his character lunges into oblivion like a snow-blind bear, feral eyes darting across a whited-out line between fear and rage. As with Fargo and A Simple Plan, Canadians can always take perverse pleasure in watching a man lose his mind in the snow.

Rushmore is a warmer confection, a witty, stylish comedy about a teenage whizkid apprenticing in love and art. Max (Jason Schwartzman), a 10th-grader at the fictional Rushmore Academy, is a megalomaniac who writes and produces plays, as well as running the yearbook, the fencing team, the debating team and countless clubs. But with failing grades, Max’s future at the school is in jeopardy. His extracurricular ambitions go too far when he tries to strike up a romance with a first-grade teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). She, in turn, beds Max’s mentor, a depressed industrialist named Blurne (BillMurray).

Rushmore presents a skewed triangle of unlikely and inappropriate relationships: an aging tycoon befriends a teenage boy, who stalks a young teacher, who gets seduced by a man old enough to be her father. Although it’s all a bit hard to swallow, the comedy takes enough inventive, unpredictable twists to keep the viewer gratefully off balance. Inspired by his own experience as a student playwright, writer-director Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket) brings an exhilarating sense of style to this portrait of the artist as a young impresario. From the playful set design to the mellow Sixties invasion sound track, Rushmore zips along like an infectious pop song, sweet but never cloying.

The setting is contemporary, but this show-and-tell tale of a school boy in blue blazer has an artfully retro tone. Everything about Rushmore feels fresh, including the cast. As Max, the nerd who would be king, Schwartzman undercuts his pathological charm with a deadpan gravity. The character has a creepy side—if he were not mounting a pyrotechnical stage extravaganza play about the Vietnam War, you could imagine him settling for a career in serial murder. But the fact that Max is seriously troubled, not just cutely mischievous, gives the comedy an edge: his lack of self-awareness forces us to see him through the other characters’ eyes. Murray, meanwhile, is a quiet revelation. Looking grey and fragile—more ghost than Ghostbuster—he plays it dead straight, conjuring loud laughs out of silent pathos.