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Willem Dafoe is Monumental in "At Eternity's Gate"


by Eric Blume

Willem Dafoe plays Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, director Julian Schnabel’s film about the last year in the life of the great Dutch painter.  And Dafoe’s delivers a magnificent performance here: his face is the canvas of the film, in all its agony and ecstasy.

Schnabel, a painter himself who made the stunning films Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, gives us a deeply detailed movie of a painter by a painter.  The mechanics of landscape and portrait painting, the walks to the viewpoints, the tools, and the intimacy with the subject all become the fabric of this movie.  Schnabel’s attention to these subtleties establish his credibility and give the movie real texture...

What Schnabel wants to do is get inside van Gogh’s head at time of his mental unraveling:  literally. He shoots the entire movie handheld, which when you’re not feeling vertiginous, allows for close-ups of Dafoe so tight that you’re almost actually inside his head.  At one point, in a climactic scene between Dafoe and Oscar Isaacs (who plays Paul Gaugin), Dafoe becomes the camera: Isaacs plays straight down the barrel and we feel van Gogh processing this information as if it’s coming straight at us (because it is).  

This technique may likely be a bit too much for some people, but it strips the romanticism out of van Gogh’s story.  If you know anything about van Gogh at all, you know about how he cut off his own ear, about the mental instability, and the Provence paintings.  Over a hundred years later, it’s easy to put van Gogh’s story in a easily-filed column of the lonely, tortured artist who died penniless but then became of the world’s most famous painters after his death.

But in At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel demystifies that story.  He thrusts you headfirst (again, literally) into van Gogh’s desperate loneliness, his inability to react properly to almost any other human outside of his brother (played by Rupert Friend).  And he attempts to get to the root of what “tortured artist” really means: he and Dafoe portray this pain with a bottomless abyss of fear and terror, but also with a sense of confusion and awe. They’re getting at something really complex here, without offering any simple answers but diving into the heart of a mind slipping away.

The film is absolutely gorgeous.  It’s true that Schnabel works at a languorous pace, but once you adjust to his tempos, you get lost in this movie, and my heart was in my throat for van Gogh on many occasions.  And Schnabel stages a scene with Dafoe and Friend, where the brothers lay cuddled in bed in each other’s arms, with a tenderness that’s nearly unbearable.

Dafoe should be at the top of every Best Actor list this year.  A lesser actor would have turned this role into a showy tour-de-force, with the emphasis being on oversized emotions.  Dafoe shows us, instead, van Gogh’s wonder of nature, the euphoria in painting. Joy and pain are inseparable for this interpretation; they drive the artist equally. In the scene where he explains cutting off his own ear, Dafoe shows us a man who feels his action is both easily rationalized and also inescapably esoteric.  There’s no “playing crazy” in Dafoe’s star turn. The artist is as bewildered as anyone by what comes over him, and the desperation Dafoe plays in his isolation is deeply stirring. Dafoe’s van Gogh can’t reach people but he keeps urgently trying, through his painting, the only thing he knows how to do.  It’s a monumental performance in a beautifully-made picture.


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Reader Comments (26)

I want to see this. Julian Schnabel and Willem Dafoe is $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

can't wait to see! what's the release info on this?

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

I hope Willem Dafoe is nominated! He should've won supporting actor last year, easily.

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Strong performance + make-up win traction + overdue traction could spell trouble for Bradley Cooper?

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

my dream at the oscars this year was to be an art house directors nominated:

Schnnabel for At Eternity's Gate
Guadagnino for Suspiria
Cuarón for Roma
Lanthimos for The Favourite
Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk

Dafoe is my shot for best actor! we be towering for him and Glenn Close receiving the oscars that they deserved for 1988's Dangerous Liaisons and Thr Last Temptation of Christ.

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjon

"Vice" star will win for his portrayal of Dick Cheney. It's all very political; Dafoe, unfortunately, gives the performance of his acting life, but he'll go unrewarded.

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterE. David

Dafoe was good (and the colours & the art direction & the cinematography), but it was a bit weird, that Van Gogh died at the age of 37, and filming that close, Dafoe looked more like a man in his 60s...

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKris

Dafoe is monumental in so many aspects...

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGirl Six

Vice doesn’t seem like the feel-good movie that moviegoers want to see. Seems like it’ll be a box office bust, which isn’t too encouraging for Awards...

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

This one is on my watchlist. Willem Dafoe is one of my favorite actors.

There's only one spot for Best Performance in an Artsy Film and I feel it's going to be Ethan Hawke. Didn't believe it at first but the love is there.

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I attended AT ETERNITY’S GATE with a Willem Defoe Q&A in Hollywood last night. He is characteristically great in it, and he is extra adorable in person, extolling his theatre work with Robert Wilson. It still hurts that he lost Supporting Actor to Sam Rockwell’s hammy performance and condescending character arc; I would LOVE to see Willem take the Lead prize for his Vincent van Gogh!

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Crowe

I hope At Eternity's Gate get sum traction, outside o Venice, Dafoe was woefully ignored both at thr Gotham n the Spirits Awards.

I dunno issit bcos it's a co-production w France n Swiss, tt it's ineligible for consideration but its seems Hawke indeed is the passion pick now.

Vice juz screened for SAG members/selected critics n those who seen it r blown away by Bale's performance. Thr's embargo now but many who seen it rank it v high on par w Cooper no. 1 spot now.

So if Cooper, Bale n Mortensen took up the three spots.. The last two spots will b a bloody battle between the other contenders.

I feel tt Rami Malek n Gosling will battle for the 4th spot in term o big budget blockbuster, while Dafoe n Hawke will compete for the 5th in term o arty indies.

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Charles O -- At Eternity's Gate is open in both NYC and LA already and I believe and will be platforming out from there over the next month or two.

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

E. David: Dafoe won't go unrewarded. He's already won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for this film. Sure, an Oscar would be nice (I wanted him to win last year), but he has already got a top-level prize.

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Willem Dafoe plays great on this and he is one of a kind.

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterConcrete Specialist

My acting dream noms today would be:

Leading Actor: Dafoe / Mortensen / Gosling / Bale / Jackman

Leading Actress: Close / Colman / McCarthy / Théron / Mulligan / Aparicio

Supporting Actress: Stone / Weiss / King / Adams / Foy / Swinton

Supporting Actor: Carell / Ali / Pryce / Nivola / Perry / Chalamet / Rockwell

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjon

I want to see At Eternity's Gate as I'm happy to note that TFE readers are also fans. Agree that he should have won last year but I also don't dislike Sam Rockwell (who impressed me in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). But Willem Dafoe was Jesus Christ, now Van Gogh and let's not forget he was also in The English Patient.

Julian Schnabel is also a director whose films I always watch because he keeps things interesting. He does have a painterly approach to filming and framing his scenes. My favorite film of his remains Basquiat -- about another tortured artist. I hope Schnabel gets a nomination at least but that would probably never happen.

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Let's get this out of the way please: there is nothing Supporting about Stone, Weisz or Chalamet. All leads. Stop the category fraud.

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNnnnvg

I am one of those ringing the Hawke bell this year,I know he won't win but a nomination is looking more likely now than Dafoe or Gosling.

As of today i'm feeling





November 20, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

If the academy wants to get more TV viewers - they should give a few nominations to Bohemian Rhapsody & especially the lead actor!

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

He should have won best supporting actor last year. Now he should at least be nominated.

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFR

Only someone like Nathaniel with a biggish blog, connections and being a member of a large, if dubious, critics group can make a tangible difference chipping away at Category Fraud.

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGuy

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is such a powerful film.. not sure if Schnabel can ever top it

November 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

Mortenson, cooper, Defoe, bales, maleck. 5 best Scott noms.

November 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

Dafoe deserves a nomination, no doubt in my mind. One of the truly great performances of 2018.

November 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Happy Diwali

December 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHappy Diwali

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