Saving Private Malick
Better to take a less obvious point of comparison. Turn away from Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line and you can find him this season in another film, Affliction. Based on a novel by Russell Banks and directed by Paul Schrader, Affliction is a far deeper work of art than The Thin Red Line, and far more involving. But it's shabby to praise Schrader at Malick's expense. Here's what I can say for Affliction on its own terms:
Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, a jack-of-no-trades who's bluffing his way through life in a little New Hampshire town. He's got a younger brother (played by Willem Dafoe) who teaches history in Boston and narrates the sad tale in voiceover. "There but for the grace of God go I" is the theme of the voiceover; or perhaps, "There, even with God's grace, go I."
Wade also has a live-in girlfriend (Sissy Spacek) who's no longer a girl. She's a resilient woman who works as the waitress at the town's one cafe, loves Wade and gives him credit as the man he'd like to be. Wade needs the credit. Just ask his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt), who gets exasperated with him over little things: for example, leaving their young daughter by herself on Halloween (when he's got visitation rights) so he can ride in a pickup with his buddy (Jim True) and smoke some weed.
Finally, Wade has a father (James Coburn): a drunken, useless, blustering, sarcastic brute, who sometimes looms over Wade in grainy, home-movie-style flashbacks. The story of Affliction: how Wade comes apart one year during deer-hunting season, succumbing to the father within him, after a lifetime of begging off.
This isn't cheerful stuff. It isn't meant to be; but it brings you the exhilaration that comes from rush after rush of adrenaline. Schrader somehow makes every moment of the film play like an emotional high point. Everything is memorable: from the first shots of Wade riding in a police sedan with his disaffected daughter (dressed for Halloween in a plastic tiger mask) to the image near the end of Wade at his dining table, calmly pouring a drink despite the conflagration that roars outside, visible through the picture window.
For reasons unknown to me, and about which I should not guess, Affliction has languished unreleased for almost a year. We should be grateful that it's in theaters at last. I don't imagine it will be easy for it to shoulder aside the gaudier year-end releases. But despite its modest exterior, Affliction is a big movie, with a big, deeply committed performance by Nolte, who is joined by a wonderful ensemble. My holiday movie recommendation: Bundle up against the chill, outside and in, and see Affliction.