Starring: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Jim True, Mary Beth Hurt, Brigid Tierney, Holmes Osborne, Willem Dafoe
Rated R for Violence and Language
Not all scars are physical.
Sometimes the deepest wounds people carry are on the inside. Not the result of physical injury, but from blows to the heart and soul. For Wade Whitehouse, his odd personality and borderline paranoia come not from being, say, hit by a truck. They come from growing up with his father.
Wade (Nolte) is a small town cop. He's a bit of an odd duck, believing things to be true that probably aren't, such as that he can rearrange custody of his daughter Jill (Tierney) with his ex (Hurt) with no apparent cause. But when his friend Jack Hewitt (True) is involved in a hunting accident, he smells a conspiracy. There's little evidence for it, but Wade is certain. Then he finds out that his mother has died, which brings him back into contact with his father Glen (Coburn).
Obviously, the central foundation of the film is the relationship between Wade and Glen. But director Paul Schrader does so little with it. He unwisely keeps Glen as an oblique figure, someone who is always at the heart of every conflict even when he isn't there. It doesn't work because James Coburn has too little screen time to do anything with him. Glen is a miserable drunk who spews bile and pain to anyone who crosses his path, but as is, he's just a one-dimensional bastard. It's not Coburn's fault; he's quite intimidating and won a deserved Oscar for his performance. The role was turned down by James Garner and Paul Newman, neither of whom wanted to play such a despicable character. Garner suggested Coburn, and when asked by Schrader to prepare, Coburn replied, "Oh, you mean you want me to really act? I can do that. I haven't often been asked to, but I can." He can indeed.
As Wade, Nick Nolte captures the subtleties of Wade's scrambled mind. It has been a long time since Wade has seen the world for what it is, but fortunately for him, most people in town are content to accept him as a harmless weirdo. But after the death of a big time union man, his eccentricities take a darker turn. Nolte does an excellent job of portraying Wade's descent into madness.
I will go on the record to say that Paul Schrader has bitten off more than he can chew. There are three plot threads and a few other subplots that are all fighting for screen time. It would take a deft hand to balance them all in a movie that runs slightly less than two hours (if it could be done at all). Still, I recommend the film for those who are interested. The performances are stunning and it's never boring. Plus the cinematography perfectly captures the feel of a small town in the midst of a heavy snow. If nothing else, it looks great.