Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Killer Beside Me

By Ray Pride

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  A few years back, writer-director Paul Schrader said the only way filmmakers of his generation, hardcore cineastes born 1945 or so, could wage war with the new bucks attuned to the post-MTV welter of stimulus would be through visual reserve.

He's made worthy movies like "Light Sleeper," and finally, now, a great, if flawed one, from Russell Banks' 1989 novel, "Affliction." Oppressive, arduous, and painfully beautiful, its centerpiece is Nick Nolte's fiery, killing magnificence as Wade Whitehouse, a New England sheriff who tries to make peace with the women in his life - ex-wife Mary Beth Hurt, a 9-year-old daughter, girlfriend Sissy Spacek. But he doesn't have the experience to make it work. He's the dogsbody for everyone with power or money in the small, snowy burg, and it all began with his father (James Coburn), an unforgiving, vicious drunk. The screen is filled with ice and fire. Wade is a good man, but he does not know how to stop the violence that has been bred in him, and borne as he is pelted with slush and commonplace disdain and an unceasing sense of shame. Wade carries within him a howling inertia, dead already, but flailing with killing accuracy at flesh and kin. All is left to become a ghost; legend.

Nolte has gotten notice for his performance in "The Thin Red Line," where he was directed to outshout "full- load howitzers." But in a distant, perfect world, the Oscar would be his from the embodiment Wade Whitehouse.

The 58-year-old veteran laughs about his ease with portraying rage. "That's fairly easy. I've been delving into rage for quite some time." While his recent screen roles are angry men, he also disdained the turns in his career. "A while back, I became upset with myself. I decided I would only do things that I truly loved, that I had a real passion for, regardless of any other consideration. Along with that decision, I had to say, 'If I go broke, that's fine. If I have to downscale living, that's fine.' Whatever I have to do, I would to follow that passion. That started with 'Mother Night.'" He pauses for effect. "And I haven't made a decent salary since!"

Working in misguided, larger-budget flops like "I Love Trouble" drove Nolte to examine his motives. "I had to remember why I became an actor. I became an actor to the authors. The authors were speaking to me in a psychological way, I needed to be on the stage and play this role in 'Death of a Salesman' because those were my issues. Not because I wanted to be a writer, but because I was psychologically fucked up!" Nolte matches his view of the world to the work he's done since. "The world, to me, is violent and brutal and hard. On stage, you can participate in that and explore and express. Y'know, the minute I hit the stage, I knew I was home."

Nolte found the unholy confluence of the dour duo of Banks and Schrader to be just his cup of hemlock. "'Affliction' is an examination of the rage that we all are. The difficulty of doing a role like that is that you have to get to the archetype. You can't play off your own anger, off your intellectual anger or your dislike of this or that. You have to find out what the raw violence in us all is, genetically. What has been passed on for thousands of years? Why do we kill each other continually? Why have we killed more people in this century in wars? When you go there, you have to discover that you... are... literally... the killer. That's who you are. You are also the compassionate man, but you are the killer. That is the broad range of who we are. We needed that much violence to escape the saber-tooth tiger. But somewhere in our gathering and socializing, this outdated mode of psychological energy doesn't quite fit and it's been directed at each one of us. You have to take the responsibility for violence yourself. You are violence."

Nolte took a couple years after reading Schrader's script to finally commit. "I had to go to that place. That was my reluctance. I wanted to justify the rage, just as you rationalize daily with your own emotions. I had to go to that place. Once there, I learned this valuable lesson: I am the killer. This is desperately what Wade Whitehouse is trying to avoid." Nolte even puts his own past drinking down to fear like Wade's. "All escape is to get away from these issues, from death, the unknown, the known."

But what was the core issue he faced that forced him to change or die? "The core issue is to get re-connected with your passion. When you start doing films for money, for commercial success or to repeat a success, you lose your connection to why you act. If you're going to do one of those films that cost $100 million and you have to sit on the set for six months, it's a really draining, life-defeating experience. No matter how you rationalize, those films are meant for an audience from 14 to 26 and they're not going to examine the truth of the issue. They're trying to get out an appealing piece of entertainment so they can make money. I have no objections to that. It's just death to me."

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