Thursday, March 13, 2014

In Character: Willem Dafoe

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.

Five Essential Roles
Platoon (1986)
Sgt. Elias
Dafoe’s performance in Platoon is so strong because he forces the audience to mistake kindness for weakness. The first thing we watch Sgt. Elias do is help Chris (Charlie Sheen) lug his gear through the dense jungle. Later, as he’s getting baked in a bunker with other hophead recruits, we assume that Elias is a lover, not a fighter.

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

“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)
Max Schreck
What makes E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire so compelling is that it creates a hyper reality based on fact, but has no qualms sneaking fiction in where it sees fit. The film is a fictionalized account of the making of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. And for the beginning scenes, Shadow of the Vampire plays as if it’s depicting truth. But everything changes when Max Schreck arrives on set. He demands to stay in character, including full make-up and costume, and refuses to do anything a vampire wouldn’t do, including being exposed to sunlight. And, because of his dedicated performance, other members of the crew start to question whether or not Schreck actually is a vampire.

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
When former television star Bob Crane was found beaten to death in a shitty motel room in 1978, his old pal, John Henry Carpenter, quickly became the main suspect. The two had shared time together, ripping it up on the streets of L.A. during the height of Crane’s fame on Hogan’s Heroes. They hit bars and strip clubs, picked up women, and slowly developed a dependency for sex. Their compulsions got so bad that they would often videotape themselves engaging in lewd sexual activity with women. Crane and Carpenter had a few falling outs over the years, and soon enough, Crane was found dead.

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 (2009)
He is a therapist attempting to cope with the loss of his infant son. He is patient, understanding, and slowly, seemingly, getting better. His attempt at recovery is mostly focused on the treatment of his wife, known as She (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She is cripplingly depressed, manic, and angry that she let her son go. In Antichrist’s first chapter, Grief, He does everything he can to summon She out of her sadness. His attempts are futile, so he proposes that He and She go stay in an isolated cabin indefinitely. The film’s next chapter, the aptly titled Chaos Reigns, quickly takes hold, and we’re thrown into the most brutal landscape Lars von Trier has to offer.

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)
Jesus Christ
It’s difficult to sum up the understated power of Willem Dafoe’s work in Martin Scrosese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. If anything, Dafoe has never entirely earned his fair share of credit for his performance. His work was always overshadowed by the film’s controversy and subsequent public outrage. In many ways, Scorsese himself is the star of the film – it was his passion project, and he brought it to the screen by any means necessary.

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
In The Hunter
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Triumph of the Spirit (1989)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Cry-Baby (1990)
Light Sleeper (1992)
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
The English Patient (1996)
Affliction (1998)
eXistenZ (1999)
The Boondock Saints (1999)
American Psycho (2000)
Animal Factory (2000)
Spider-Man (2002)
The Clearing (2004)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Manderlay (2005)
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)


  1. Thank you so much for doing this one! Dafoe is easily one of my favorite actors working today. He's just one of those guys who I can always watch, even if the rest of the movie around him is utter crap (The Boondock Saints...) and I'm so glad you dig his work as well! I probably would have switched around TLToC with Antichrist but that's just me. I also really love what he did in a film called The Dust of Time and The Hunter as well. He plays minor roles so often it's always a treat whenever he gets to play the lead in a film. I was actually a little surprised to see you highlight his performance in Auto Focus to be honest. I think it's one of my favorite Schrader (directed anyway) films and I thought you would have gone for something else but great to see some love for it here. As I said, I LOVE his work in Antichrist, and it might still be my favorite von Trier film but his work in TLToC is great as well. As you said, very understated - and really you flagged up my problem with that film here as well - Keitel who sounds like he just walked out of a New York bar rather than the more regionally nonspecific other accents. But Dafoe is damn great in that film and very underrated. This made my day good sir and for that I thank you!

    1. Thank YOU for encouraging me to cover him! I haven't seen The Dust of Time, but I'll look into that one right away. As for Auto Focus... it's funny, I actually had Affliction listed first, because I think his narration in that film ranks among some of the finest film narration ever. And his performance, while brief, is a true look at what the same horrible upbringing to can do to two different people. Nolte has grown into an enraged, disgusting man, like his father. Dafoe's character is solemn, complacent, silent. I'm fascinated by that.

      But then I remembered Dafoe's performance in that other great Schrader film, Auto Focus, and yeah... he's just perfect in that film, so it won out.

      I love Dafoe in everything. He always makes films better.

  2. Oh man that scene from Wild at Heart you mentioned is so creepy and unpleasant. His character is so gross, but my God is his last scene hilarious.

    I hate Antichrist but Dafoe delivered good work there. His acting and cinematography were the only things I liked there.

    1. Bobby Peru is definitely one sick son of a bitch, but you can't argue with his final scene. Ha. Fucking priceless.

      Glad to hear your kind words for his Antichrist work. I think he's great there.


    1. I'm a huge Wes Anderson fan, but I Do. Not. like that film. At all.

    2. Thanks... thanks not for picking Klaus. *cries*

  4. Fine picks man. Really glad you included his performance in Antichrist, which tends to get overlooked. Granted, Gainsbourg is fantastic, but he gives a great performance as well.

    I'd probably go with The Last Temptation of Christ as well, but Platoon is *this* close to topping the list.

    1. That was the same for me too. At first, I had Platoon as his best, but then I remembered ol' Jesus. Couldn't NOT have that as number 1. A truly great actor.

  5. You can't think of Dafoe without think of that wonderfully creepy, wonderfully sinister smile of his. Great write-up.

    1. Ha, thanks man. When I was researching this post, I came across this insane little treat:

  6. Very happy to see Dafoe's performance as Carpenter in Auto Focus on this list. He adds to what stands as a mesmerizing, fuck, a downright hypnotic film from a Paul Schrader in top form as a writer and filmmaker. I'm less enthused to see Dafoe in Last Temptation on your list, and as his big defining role I might add. I'm pretty cold on Last Temptation, I never cared for it -- it, Cape Feare and Kundun being my least favorite Scorsese films by a large margin.

    I grinned when I saw Ferrara's 4:44 on your notable works list. Bravo Alex, that movie, holy shit. I hope I make a movie that great. I hope I collaborate with someone as talented as Willem Dafoe, a actor that invents and reinvents the wheel on celluloid time and time again. We should all strive to be as competent as Dafoe at whatever we do. He's a real inspiration, I never grow tired of him whether it's Streets of Fire, Cry Baby, Wild at Heart or a cameo on The Simpsons, he's great.

    Except Last Temptation of Christ. Fuck that movie, haha

    1. Ohh now I'm really curious... why the Last Temptation hate? All fair enough, of course, I'm just intrigued. Are you against it for religious reasons, or on a cinematic level? Because man, like the film or not, I thought what he did there was so ballsy and impressive.

    2. Oh and I was also this close to swapping Wild at Heart with 4:44. I loved 4:44.

    3. Man, he's so great in Wild at Heart, it's hard to choose. Abel Ferrara's my boy! As for my feelings on Last Temptation, I find that despite it being a daring move for filmmaker Martin Scorsese, it doesn't find itself being judged outside of a religious scope. As a piece of speculative fiction, it seems all too aware that it is speculation. This is a filmic depiction of Christ as neurotic, as easily manipulated. Keitel's Judas Iscariot is depicted as a zealot, and so heavy handedly I might add, makes me want to wretch.

      I get that the two have this give and take dichotomy, in fact I like that Judas gets swept up in his own propaganda but it seems so muddled. More importantly, it seems needy, desperate, holier than thou (no pun, I mean it) as a film. It's quite clear Marty wanted to create a masterpiece. Instead, he created a visually appealing mess along the lines of other New Hollywood alumni Bogdonovich and Cimino. Passion projects and films born of faith can go one way or another. I feel that I'm in the vast minority of those who dislike this film. I can safely say my being Baptist does create an all too great bias.

      Whew. Sorry, but yup, that movie stinks IMO. I might have to revisit it again, we'll see if I can take something away from it next time. :)

    4. "I can safely say my being Baptist does create an all too great bias."

      So it is, in part, a religious dissatisfaction with the film? That's very intriguing to me. One that I can't really comment on because I don't have an once of religious interest within me. But from a critical standpoint, I get where you're coming from. Honestly, I could stand to give this film a rewatch as well.

      Oh, and I so agree that passion projects really only go one of two ways. Very funny how that works.

    5. It's funny, I took a lot of your comments into consideration before and after posting. I do think my being religious to a point, clouded my being a cinephile in this instance. I was talking to some fellow film pals about The Last Temptation of Christ and what struck me more than anything else was that it was the film they we're tackling, not Christ, not the adaptation of the book, not Scorsese's religion.

      When you're looking at something like Last Temptation or Gibson's less cerebral, more antisemitic Passion of the Christ, it's that taboo topic that rears it's holy head and can redirect many a cinematic eye.

      Talking about Last Temptation these couple times has made me eager to track down a copy and give it a good watch again. I don't think I really gave it the respect it deserved.

      But back to Willem Dafoe, guy's a hell of an actor. Man oh man.

    6. Again, this is all very interesting to me. I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on Passion of the Christ as well. Only saw that film once. And that was enough.

  7. I honestly don't think this man's ever made a bad movie before. Even Mr. Bean's Holiday, if you've ever seen that?!?! It's a bit of a stretch, I know, but I'm just saying: The man's a legend and deserves to be more-known. Although, I think he's fine with just being him. Lovely picks, bud.

    1. Thanks Dan! Seriously, the man is always on. Even if he's in a subpar film, Dafoe can never miss.

    2. I, like you, think Willem Dafoe is fantastic. But, I've always thought of him as being a well known and popular actor even if some of his output is obscure.

    3. Yeah, I agree. He's a pretty well known dude. Love his work though.