ANGEL HEART (1987) / Horror-Drama

Running Length: 113 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong violence/gore, disturbing images, language, nudity, and a graphic sex scene.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet, Robert De Niro, Charlotte Rampling, Stocker Fontelieu, Brownie McGhee, Michael Higgins
Director: Alan Parker
Producers: Alan Marshall, Elliot Kastner
Screenplay: Alan Parker (based upon the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg)

Alan Parker’s Angel Heart is an immensely creepy viewing experience. It’s not flat-out scary. It doesn’t go “Boo!” and laugh as you shrivel back into your seat. It will not have you clinging to the person nearest to you for dear life. But it will get under your skin. It will horrify you. And I guarantee that when it is all over, you will have nightmares.

The film transpires in the 1950s, starting off in Brooklyn then moving to Louisiana. Our hero is Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a small-time gumshoe who smokes so many cigarettes you could make a decent drinking game out of it. Angel is contacted by an attorney named Winesap, who instructs him to meet with his client, Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro). Cyphre is quite a sight with his long, black hair and manicured fingernails. He hires Angel to locate a crooner named Johnny Favorite that disappeared before a debt was settled between the two. Though hesitant at first, Angel accepts the offer.

Now, one would expect for Angel Heart to be rather routine as most noir is, but in truth, it’s actually very complex and unorthodox in the way it goes about presenting itself. Parker uses noir as a way to get the story in motion, but once it really takes off, the story delves into much more complicated territory, taking on elements of horror, surrealism, and the occult. One moment, he’ll lead you down a path of familiarity, expecting you to assume what’s most predictable, but will take the outcome and flip it on its ear, catching you by complete surprise.

Rourke is good in this kind of role. He makes the character of Harry Angel likable and innocent, though entirely competent. Parker fashions Angel Heart in the way that we pick up on details as Angel does, inflicting a double-dose of confusion on both the audience and lead character. His film relies so heavily on mood and atmosphere in order to be bizarre and horrifying and Rourke does a great job in making his character feel what we’re feeling. The direction is exceptional, and feels strangely to Parker’s previous outing Mississippi Burning. (Both deal with the bayou country of Louisiana.) Parker knows exactly how to grab our attention, how to make us ask questions, and then how to make us cringe when we get the answers.

As expected, the ending is a little weak. Now, this is routine for these kinds of motion pictures, and I get that. For the most part, the story in Angel Heart picks up in places and never seems to lag, but the final twenty minutes or so just kind of go all over the place. The “twist” is abrupt, not very logical, and even somewhat absurd, but, if you’re like me, you won’t let an unsatisfactory ending ruin an otherwise good movie.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest



Nick Nolte and James Coburn give two unbelievably realistic performances in "Affliction."

U.S. Release Date: December 30, 1998

Running Time: 114 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language/verbal abuse, violence)

Cast: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe, Holmes Osbourne, Jim True-Frost, Brigid Tierney, Mary Beth Hurt

Director: Paul Schrader

Producer: Linda Reisman

Screenplay: Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Russell Banks

By STEPHEN EARNEST / April 9, 2011

Paul Schrader has finally hit a nerve with Affliction, one of the most true-to-life films I have ever seen. It reaches out to those who’ve had rocky relationships with their fathers and offers them a helping hand.

Not one other person could’ve played the role of Wade Whitehouse as well as Nick Nolte does. He brings a harshness to this character that honestly cannot be defined by words. Wade is at the breaking point. He’s angry, divorced, and a bitter alcoholic. He only gets to see his daughter a few days of the week and even she doesn’t like him all that much. We learn that his dad, Glen (James Coburn), is a much more formidable foe: it’s because of his actions that Wade is the way that he is.

A hunting accident occurs and Wade rushes to the scene of the crime. The boy Jack says that the man accidentally shot himself. But Wade grows suspicious, suspecting that the man’s death wasn’t an accident at all. The story begins to unfold in the usual manner. Wade becomes more and more disgruntled as the film progresses. We see the effects that his father had on him, the mental and physical abuse. Wade’s brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), was never afflicted by Glen’s violence. He has turned out to be a much more decent human because of it. Wade, on the other hand, was and is slowly turning out to be more like his father.

Affliction is set in New Hampshire, which is the most suitable place this story. With these characters, you need a cold and dark environment because it suits their moods better. The bleak landscape matches perfectly.

Nolte’s performance is unbelievably good. His portrayal of an afflicted soul outdoes any competitor. Why he did not win the Oscar in 1997 confuses me to no end, but I won’t argue. His typically tough demeanor, gruff exterior, and sandpaper-like voice contribute immensely to building his character. He brings such a force to Wade, lashing out in fits of anger when something doesn’t go his way. His dialogue is delivered with a snarl. This is a man who has given up on life. Nothing has gone his way. The audience takes pity on him and Nolte evokes this pity so well.

James Coburn plays the abusive father, Glen Whitehouse. Unlike Nolte, Coburn won the Oscar in 1997, which was well-deserved. He can surely act. Here is a man that is almost entirely evil. He encourages hate and violence and it’s only when he finally sees himself in his son that he is actually proud of him.

Affliction is a spectacular character study. In fact, it’s probably the best that I’ve seen. I cannot urge anyone to see this movie enough. I hope that it has the same effect on you that it did on me.