Nick Nolte and James Coburn deliver some of the finest work of their respective careers in this powerful but troubling adaptation of Russell Banks's novel. Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is the sheriff in a small New England town; it's a part-time job with few taxing responsibilities, and Wade fills his many free hours by swilling booze, smoking pot, and thinking back on his nightmarish childhood. Wade's father Glen (James Coburn) was by turns callous, distant, and abusive, and Wade has inherited his addiction to alcohol and inability to deal with others. Consequently, Wade's ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) despises him, his daughter is uncomfortable and frightened in his presence, and the only person who can reach him is his loving but long-suffering girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek). When a wealthy businessman is killed in a hunting accident, Wade suspects foul play and pursues the case with an obsession that puzzles all around him; meanwhile, Wade's mother dies and his brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), the only one in the family to escape Glen's abuse without crippling emotional scars, returns to pay his respects and is caught up once again in the damaged lives of his father and brother. James Coburn) won an Academy award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Affliction, while Nick Nolte was nominated for Best Actor (he lost to Roberto Benigni).
by Mark Deming synopsis