These films find disparate people in desperate situations, and the frailty of human standards and spirits.
Perhaps the simple truth that life is full of hardship lends reason for tragedy as a natural avenue for the venue of film. Tragic plays and musicals are indisputably the most remembered and impacting. It is quite likely that the same can be said of the greatest movies.
While not all tragedies are easy to convey nor consume, they are worth a look if for nothing else than to examine and be grateful they are not our own. Two prime examples of such tragic film are Affliction and A Simple Plan.
- Winter setting & story
- Superb actors
- Degeneration of humanity
- Tangent subplots
- Literary symbols
Affliction‘s director Paul Schrader adapted the story from Russell Banks’ novel, who incidentally wrote the tragic novel behind the tragic film The Sweet Hereafter. A long time screenplay writer for Martin Scorsese, the duo brought to screen Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and the recent Bringing Out the Dead.
Shrader’s and Banks’ story begins with Wade Whitehouse, harrowingly played by Nick Nolte, perhaps the finest character actor of his generation. Wade is the sheriff of a small New Hampshire town, never leaving the stomping ground of his youth. Poor Wade’s life is in shambles around him. His daughter Jill whom he only sees on visitation-rights weekends is uncomfortable in his company. His ex-wife Lillian harbors severe pain from their harsh break-up.
From Wade’s perspective, Lillian’s new marriage to a wealthy businessman and his consequent estrangement from his daughter are subtle conspiracies against him. That he achieved nothing of significance in life is his deepest regret. These life choices aren’t Wade’s fault alone. He learned his alcoholism and uncommunicativeness from an abusive dissociative father. Wade’s one solace in his dismal life is his current girlfriend Margie, played by Sissy Spacek, who accepts him purely.
This brings us to the setting of the film. The season is dead of winter. On the first day of the hunting season, Wade’s friend Jack chaperones a wealthy land owner on a hunting trip. Only Jack returns alive. As if a distraction from Wade’s numbing life and incessant tooth ache, he immediately investigates the wrongful death despite Jack’s insistence that it was an accidental self-inflicted shot.
Directed by Sam Raimi, whose most notable release was Army of Darkness, Plan is a similar film in genre. A very different project for Raimi, the story is adapted from Scott B. Smith’s novel.
The tale unfolds with Hank and Sarah Mitchell (Bill Paxton and Bridget Fonda). The two are a well-adjusted married couple in a small community, Hank a mild-mannered hardware store manager and Sarah a supportive expecting wife. The two are poor, but content.
Hank’s unemployed older brother Jacob is played by Billy Bob Thornton in yet another middleaged bum role since his mentally retarded hero in Sling Blade and his yokel mechanic in U Turn. Leave it to Thornton to somehow avoid stereotyping himself as he embodies his most believable character yet.
When Jacob and a friend discover a crashed airplane in a snow-fallen nature preserve containing $4.4 million cash in stolen money, the lives of the four are about to change drastically. The unequal partners hastily plan to hide the booty from authorities and split it after the dust settles. Mistrust begins to breed however, and leads to shocking deceit and eventually unintended death.
The contrast between the brothers is evident, but their underlying similarity is both stunning and haunting as the opportunity presents itself. Greed has a way of reducing opposite people to their most primal instincts. How Hank transforms from a family man to a driven sociopath along with Sarah from meek wife to prodding merciless accomplice is atrocious.
To be sure, Affliction is also a methodical portrait of human depravity, not so much the eviscerated type splayed out by Se7en. Instead, it’s the more subtle brand, subtracting layers of morality and ideology from its principal characters like layers of warm protective clothing against a harsh wintry backdrop of the outside world.
Their father’s terrible verbal abuse of Wade and his younger brother Rolfe is the sole cause of Wade’s mental disintegration. Rolfe explains the psychology best in the film’s narrative epilogue:
Our stories — Wade’s and mine — describe the lives of boys and men for thousands of years. Boys who were beaten by their fathers; whose capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth; whose best hope for connection with other human beings lay in detachment as if life were over. It’s how we keep from destroying and turn our own children and terrorizing the women who have the misfortune to love us, how we absent ourselves from the tradition of male violence that we decline the seduction of revenge.
What’s left of Wade is a mentally crippled child in an adult’s body, never knowing how to interact with society around him, let alone love those closest to him. His daughter wants to go home as soon as she comes to visit him. His girlfriend Margie finally leaves him for her own sanity’s sake.
Wade’s most pathetic child-like display is when he informs his ex-wife of his intention to hire a child custody lawyer. He becomes shocked by her negative response. What he didn’t think fully was the ramifications of such a lawsuit. Lillian chastises his reckless actions, thinking of their daughter. In trying to display his misguided love for Jill by a desperate last act of fathering, he will only make his daughter disown him further.
In a rather desperate attempt to reestablish his shattered masculinity and authority, he tries to issue a traffic violation to the land developer’s son-in-law for running a school crossing zone. The scene is pitiful and deprecating for Wade, further driving his frustration inward.
Both Plan and Affliction share deceptively tangent subplots — in Plan, the inclusion of an FBI agent into the mystery of the plane’s origins; and in Affliction, Wade’s mediocre gumshoe work. As distracting as they may be, they are more indicative of the characters’ resolve than weak story line, and thus an important inclusion.
Another similarity between the two films is their symbolism. In Plan, Raimi uses various animals for such symbolic effect, such as crows and foxes. They seem to be silent carriers of dread and impending doom, both flighty (the crow) and stealthy (the fox).
In Affliction, Wade carries with him a very evident symbol of his trouble. His tooth ache is of course is a metaphor for the affliction that his father represents to him, a canker in his meager existence. It’s clear from the outset (and the title for that matter) that Wade’s physical pain is really his emotional pain. Yet in the film’s simplicity of story lies its brutal earnest and revelation.
- Method to their madness: revenge vs. greed
Plan and Affliction are about disparate people caught in desperate situations, propelled to their respective demises in different fashion. On one side is Wade, a shell of a man, robbed of his childhood by a vindictive domineering father. His intense need for some sort of retaliatory catharsis is evidenced by his final reactions.
On the other side are the Mitchell brothers, driven to chance robbery and even mutinous murder under unique tempting situations. Jacob, the older more down-on-his-luck brother, would seem more likely to seize the opportunity. Yet, we discover that greed spares no one as Hank and Sarah Mitchell both risk their more respectable community standing with the chance for a financial shortcut.
The only true common thread between Plan and Affliction are simple motivations: characters desperate to change their seemingly predetermined plights without the proper means. In this, their reflection of the desolate side of humanity is the most obvious interpretation of the barren wintry landscapes of both films.
There is a vague dual similarity to the film Fargo, another wintry tragedy. While the scenic symbolism and character demises are familiar, Fargo is an uneasy and unnerving black comedy about rural Minnesotans outwitted in a kidnapping scheme that spirals out of control. Whereas, A Simple Plan and Affliction are not sick comedies but dark dramas of the frailty of human standards and spirits, respectively. Together, the two films cover the gist of the Macbeth tragedy.