With Willem Dafoe, you never know what kind of man you’re going to get. Cops, robbers, creeps, villains – Dafoe is the type of actor who rarely changes his appearance, so the intentions of his characters are usually a mystery. Now, granted, a handful of the films below required Dafoe to alter his exterior, but take his work in Spike Lee’s Inside Man for example. When Dafoe showed up in the film as a police captain, I assumed he was going to be in on the heist because, you know… he’s Willem Dafoe. But he wasn’t. He was just a straight-shooting cop. It was Dafoe playing a real guy, and it was nearly as captivating as him playing Dracula or Jesus. A mystery man, but always a persuasive one.
And then comes the film’s horrifying recreation of the Mỹ Lai Massacre. The conclusion of that scene finds the ruthless Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) executing villagers in an attempt to gather information (which, presumably, they do not have). No one says a word until Elias marches on the scene and demands to know what’s going on. He and Barnes quickly come to blows, sealing both of their inevitable fates.
Dafoe’s Sgt. Elias is one of the most compassionate yet strong willed war characters I’ve ever seen. Kindness isn’t weakness, it’s simply kindness… until it’s not.
Wild at Heart (1990)
“Bobby Peru don’t come up for air.”
One of the best, most oddly perverse scenes of David Lynch’s career is Bobby Peru forcing Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) to admit that she wants him. With his slimy face, raspy voice and grotesque chompers, Dafoe turned a brief role into one of Lynch’s most vile characters. I love everything about this creep, especially his glorious send off, a shockingly humorous feat only David Lynch could achieve.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Dafoe’s uncanny work as Schreck is as layered and impressive as nearly anything he’s done. It’s Willem Dafoe playing a fictional Max Schreck playing Count Dracula. Dafoe never goes too far with his choices, thankfully staying away from melodrama and injecting humor where appropriate. It’s an all-around thrilling performance; one Dafoe literally escapes into.
Auto Focus (2002)
John Henry Carpenter
In Paul Schrader’s exquisite film, Auto Focus, Dafoe plays Carpenter as a lonely parasite incapable of going away. He clearly idolizes Crane (played to perfection by Greg Kinnear), which annoys the TV star about as much as it satisfies him. Carpenter plays into Crane’s narcissism, but as the film progresses, Carpenter takes steps to assert himself as his own, unique, debauched man. Watching Kinnear and Dafoe sink lower and lower into the bottomless depths of depravity never grows old. These are two very bold and thrilling performances.
Antichrist is a damn difficult film to appreciate. And while it has received its fair share of vitriol since its release, I have trouble hearing arguments against Dafoe and Gainsbourg’s work in it. Like the film or not, there’s no questioning the dedication and fearlessness it took to bring He and She to life. Yes, the film is unconscionably brutal, but it’s also one of the best depictions of depression I’ve ever seen. Chaos reigns, indeed.
The Best of the Best
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Perhaps the reason why the conversation surrounding Last Temptation rarely focuses on Dafoe is because, despite playing Jesus Christ, there isn’t anything particularly flashy about his performance. Which is meant as a compliment. This is obviously a very difficult part to play, one that many (…most?) other actors have paled in comparison to Dafoe’s take on it. He never tries to be Jesus in the film (say, in the way that one might argue Harvey Keitel tries to be Judas), Dafoe simply just is. The film itself is a towering achievement, but we should remember to give its central performance the endless praise it deserves.
Other Notable Roles
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Triumph of the Spirit (1989)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Light Sleeper (1992)
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
The English Patient (1996)
The Boondock Saints (1999)
American Psycho (2000)
Animal Factory (2000)
The Clearing (2004)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Ripley Under Ground (2005)
Inside Man (2006)
Paris, je’taime (2006)
The Walker (2007)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009)
The Hunter (2011)
4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011)
Out of the Furnace (2013)
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (2014)The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)