“Turn off the sound in a movie, and if you can tell what’s going on, the movie should work.” That was Willem Dafoe in 2012 in an interview with Esquire, a rule of thumb rooted in the long, glorious history of a medium that captured the world’s imagination long before the addition of spoken dialogue. As the silent movie star played by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard puts it when rhapsodizing about the early days of cinema: “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces then.”
Willem Dafoe has a face. Not the face of a movie star, perhaps: it’s too angular and unusual for that, although anybody who has seen the actor’s early roles in The Hunger, Streets of Fire, and The Loveless—in which he played a vampire, a biker, and a vampire biker—knows that he’s beautiful in the right neon light. Nor would you really say that Dafoe has the face of a character actor, one of those guys who makes you say “hey, it’s that guy” every time he shows up on screen. He is definitely Willem Dafoe, and everybody knows exactly who he is. He’s as recognizable and famous as all the macho icons he’s played against, from Tom Cruise to Harrison Ford to Spider-Man, but he’s rarely had to shoulder the burden of being a box office draw; he’s worked with a disproportionately high number of the world’s greatest directors, and is kind of like a slightly upscale Nicolas Cage. He’s been nominated for three Oscars, at least two of which he should have won; his awards show reaction shots deserve awards. And what makes him a great actor—and I’d say he’s one of the greatest American actors of the past 40 years—is exactly as he said. If you turn off the sound in any one of his movies and watch his face, the movie works, at least until the camera has to look at something or somebody else.
At Eternity’s Gate, the new film by the acclaimed painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel in which Dafoe plays Vincent van Gogh, doesn’t really work overall. Like Schnabel’s previous portraits of real-life figures from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Reinaldo Arenas and Jean-Dominique Bauby, the movie is caught between the filmmaker’s reverence for his subject and his attempt to flex his own artistic muscles. When cinematographer Benoît Delhomme floods the screen with sunflower-yellow light, it’s as much about impressing the audience as it is paying homage to van Gogh’s aesthetic. But for all the distractingly off-key elements in At Eternity’s Gate—including a weirdly miscast Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin and broadly declarative dialogue more suited to a biopic parody than the real thing (proposed title: Stroke Hard)—Dafoe nearly holds it together by sheer force of will.
When Kirk Douglas played van Gogh in 1956, he went all out to embody the painter’s wild, tortured charisma (no wonder the movie was called Lust for Life.) Dafoe, 63, is nearly twice as old now as van Gogh was when he died at the age of 39. He goes in the other direction and leans into a gentle, recessive melancholy that suggests a man perpetually on the wrong side of a hallucinatory bender. It’s as if every act of creation leaves him spent. In the best sequences, Schnabel dispenses with stylistic gimmicks and simply holds his star in close-up, as when van Gogh explains, with a disarming simplicity bordering on deadpan humor, exactly why he sliced his ear off as a gift for his colleague Gauguin, or when he’s queried by a priest (played with excellently judged stoicism by Mads Mikkelsen) about both the quality of his work and the question of art as a higher calling. Suspecting that the holy man is dubious about his work, van Gogh playfully (or is he dead serious?) compares himself to Jesus Christ—words that can be taken as pure delusion or the ultimate expression of humility.
It’s also a pretty good joke on the fact that Dafoe’s highest-profile role (following up his saintly soldier in Platoon) was playing the Son of God in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that turns 30 years old this year, and still looks like one of the most daring leaps of faith in the modern history of cinema.
Scorsese had originally envisioned Aidan Quinn in the part, but recast the role with Dafoe and was rewarded with an extraordinary performance. There’s not a trace of solicitousness in Dafoe’s portrayal of Jesus. Dafoe honors Nikos Kazantzakis’s source novel, which envisioned a more “human” version of Western religion’s most exalted deity. The film was incredibly controversial, but while Dafoe has said that he lost out on a few subsequent roles because of his involvement—“over my dead body,” warned one studio head, who obviously forgot the story of Lazarus—he emerged unscathed, for the most part.
Going through the murderer’s row of roles Dafoe took—and nailed—in the next decade would be extremely time-consuming. Like Cage and Christopher Walken (another possible comparison, including the fact they both appeared in Heaven’s Gate), the guy obviously likes to work. But for every high-profile appearance—like his elegant thief in the Best Picture–winning The English Patient, or a proliferation of crazy-villain parts in slick studio products like Clear and Present Danger and Speed 2: Cruise Control—Dafoe’s ’90s were all about the auteurs. He acted for the Davids (Lynch in Wild at Heart, Cronenberg in eXistenZ) and began two long-running artistic relationships with Abel Ferrara (New Rose Hotel) and Paul Schrader (Light Sleeper, Affliction).
With apologies to Jesus, the early 2000s yielded Dafoe’s two signature roles, both of which reached back to his beginnings as a horror-movie figure. First, his Oscar-nominated turn as the German actor Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire—a delirious satire built on the idea that the star of the Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu was actually an immortal monster—showed how easily Dafoe’s lean features could be contorted into something grotesque. Two years later, as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, he was mostly hidden behind a metal mask (a big mistake, if you ask me) but still evinced an intense, giggly viciousness that no superhero-movie bad guy has really matched (aside from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, whose manic energy could almost be an act of tribute).
Still, I’d say that Dafoe’s greatest villain (aside from his stop-motion rodent avatar in Fantastic Mr. Fox) was his unnamed character in Lars von Trier’s scandalous, controversial Antichrist (and you better believe that Lars, ever the malevolent trickster, was referencing Dafoe’s pious past by casting him in a film with that title). An unholy mash-up of Don’t Look Now, August Strindberg, and several centuries’ worth of witchcraft studies, Antichrist is about a couple (played by Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat into the countryside to get over the accidental death of their infant son. In an attempt to talk his wife out of her sadness, Dafoe’s “He” reveals himself to be an arrogant, archetypal mansplainer. His comeuppance—and whatever else you can say about Antichrist, it is a film very interested in comeuppance—is to receive one of the most brutal (and male-specific) injuries ever inflicted in a movie in a sequence that slyly rhymes with The Last Temptation of Christ.
In the nine years since Antichrist, Dafoe has worked with von Trier (Nymphomaniac: Vol. II), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Schrader (Dog Eat Dog) and Ferrara, for whom he played the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (a performance that anticipates his work in At Eternity’s Gate). But if I had to pick one 21st-century role to illustrate how Dafoe simply makes movies work, it’d be his sublime appearance in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project.
Playing Bobby, the manager of a highway-side motel adjacent to Walt Disney World, Dafoe projects a decency that never once lapses into piety. He is alternately warring with and dutifully protecting the largely transient, vulnerable tenants living hand-to-mouth (and month-to-month) in The Magic Castle’s many dilapidated rooms, and is a comic figure with a genuine center of gravity. It’s not a particularly big role in terms of screen time or dialogue. Baker focuses mainly on mischievous 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), but Dafoe imbues Bobby, and the entire movie around him, with a sweet, world-weary soul. Watch him in the scene where Moonee is dripping ice cream all over Bobby’s office floor, and the way the affection on Dafoe’s face contradicts his character’s harsh words. You could turn the sound off and tell exactly what’s going on.