Paul Schrader's film of the Russell Banks novel gives us a portrait of a middle-aged man who in everything he does seems incapable of doing it right. He has a hairtrigger temper; he is a stupid and thoughtless father to his 9-year-old daughter from his failed marriage; he is susceptible to every rumor he hears; he cannot recognize either love or support when he receives it; and there are probably a dozen other parts of life he can't handle either.
And for us in the audience the problem is that he's played by Nick Nolte, a one-note actor who has yet to find a meaningful role he can inhabit without narrowing it down to his level of skill.
Nolte is the town cop in a one-cop town in New Hampshire. Winter has come early; the film opens on Halloween, with Nolte's Wade Whitehouse once again destroying his daughter's visit (she lives with her mother a half-hour's drive away) by not letting her go trick-or-treating.
There are flashbacks spotted throughout the film that tell us of Wade's horrifying childhood; brutalized by his savage father (James Coburn), who beats him, demeans him, undermines him, who pits him against his younger brother (Willem Dafoe as an adult), Wade now has no resilience, no center, no ability to take control of his own life or to enjoy anything in it. Though he is loved by Sissy Spacek he cannot recognize what a gift that is, nor reciprocate in any meaningful way, and the film is the story of his final disintegration over the weeks following that ominous Halloween.
All of this is apparent to us and, I'm told, is faithful to the novel, but the question is whether or not this makes it a good film. Banks, the film of whose novel "The Sweet Hereafter" made a great impact two years ago, has given us another winter story, but here it is the peripheral characters who are more interesting than the central ones, and the film's weakness lies in focusing on the Nolte-Coburn relationship rather than on those who are affected by them. We know immediately that nothing will change the two men; we do not know whether what they do will change others. And it is the others whom we can respond to, not Nolte or Coburn, for they are endlessly, unrelentingly monotonous.
Banks apparently writes in mosaics rather than straight plot lines, as we saw in "The Sweet Hereafter," but here he's barely filled in any kind of picture, and he's left out the most interesting parts. Schrader, who wrote the script as well as directing, and whose directorial vision seems to darken anything he touches, gives us atmosphere but no substance. He seems to have felt that his two massive screen presences -- Nolte and Coburn -- could make up for the thinness of the characters and the lack of depth.
There is a plot, of sorts, that has to do with a possible murder of a visiting hunter by his guide, who is Nolte's best friend and works with Nolte for the township, and a subplot, of even fewer sorts, having to do with a possibly related attempt by Nolte's township boss to buy up vast acreage for a ski area. But the resolutions are bizarre and unmotivated, and leave us wondering why they were put in at all.
Nolte and Coburn have been recognized by their peers for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor performances, which only confirms the prejudice I used to have when I was directing that actors as a class are the stupidest occupational group around.