Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Willem Dafoe

In this month’s Retrospective Roundtable, we look back at a number of performances from the versatile actor Willem Dafoe. Known to many for his supporting roles in films such as Spider-Man and Platoon, Dafoe has also excelled as lead actor in films such as The Last Temptation of Christ and At Eternity’s Gate. Dafoe is also known for contributing his voice in a number of projects, one of which we write about below.

Platoon (1986)

By Dalton Mullins

Platoon is widely lauded as one of the best films to  depict the horrors of the Vietnam War. It’s gritty, bloody, and powerful, successfully transporting us to the fields, jungles, and villages of Vietnam and recreating the sense of paranoia about when and where the next attack will come from. Having Oliver Stone‘s experienced hand behind the camera, Platoon was rewarded with Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards. However, in my opinion, the astonishing performances by the cast deserve equal, if not more, praise than Oliver Stone’s directorial work, especially Willem Dafoe as Sgt. Elias.

Elias is a hardened man, but still harbors a few feelings of hope and righteousness; he hasn’t fully succumbed to the hell that was the Vietnam War. He is the antithesis of Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) because Elias hasn’t surrendered to the hopeless paranoia the other soldiers have, which is evident in his brawl with Barnes after Barnes threatened to kill a little girl. However, Elias is inching towards disillusionment. In a personal conversation with Taylor (Charlie Sheen), he laments his changing attitudes and feelings towards the war and their ability to win. Yet, the most memorable and harrowing of Dafoe’s scenes is his death scene. The final confrontation between Elias and Barnes is suspenseful yet the writing is on the wall. You see the moment of realization come over Dafoe’s face as he is gunned down by Barnes, but the most agonizing moment is Elias’s wounded mad dash to make back to the platoon. After the platoon takes off, seeing Elias stumble through the jungle while being pursued by the Vietcong and watching his final moments as he reaches for the heavens make for one of the most affecting scenes in the entire film. Dafoe’s entire performance stood out as the most memorable to me in a film filled with great performances and it is no surprise he was nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts and continues to be a respected actor in Hollywood.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

By Alex Sitaras

In The Last Temptation of Christ, Willem Dafoe plays a different version of Jesus than we typically see in religious epics. Dafoe’s Jesus genuinely seems to be equal parts man and God as opposed to how Jesus is frequently portrayed as an abstract biblical character (rather than as a flesh-and-blood being or cinematic character). Dafoe brings to the role charisma and zaniness in equal measure, charisma to stir devotion from his followers, and zaniness to echo the boldness of Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God. Like any depiction of biblical stories that strays from conventional interpretation of the Bible, The Last Temptation of Christ is controversial, in particular for guiding the viewer to re-examine their perception of Jesus. Nonetheless, themes of salvation, sacrifice, love, faith, and sin are all explored in great depth throughout The Last Temptation of Christ, just as they are in the Gospels. Willem Dafoe’s rendition of Jesus lends the film great flexibility in exploring these themes given the uniquely dynamic story arc that his character undergoes.

Mississippi Burning (1988)

By Kevin Jones

Dafoe’s turn as FBI agent Alan Ward has undoubtedly been overshadowed by his many great performances over the years. However, as a young idealistic man tasked with investigating the disappearance of three Civil Rights activists, Dafoe is exceptional. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is a straight-laced investigator, occasionally snapping at Hackman’s more laid back approach to the job. Dafoe’s natural intensity suits the role, but so does his skill with subtle emotional. The strength of this performance is found there, particularly in the look in Dafoe’s eyes as Ward tries to ignore the sounds of brutality Gene Hackman’s Agent Rupert Anderson unleashes on a participant in the crime. It is a powerful moment in Mississippi Burning, coming after Dafoe has wonderfully captured the slow chiseling away of Ward’s naive approach in the face of pure hatred and evil. It exemplifies the strength of this performance, one that may not rank as Dafoe’s absolute best, but one that demonstrates his gift for subtlety and nuance as an actor.

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

By Henry Baime

A true testament to Willem Dafoe’s superb skill as an actor is his ability to shine and present a noteworthy performance in even the most dismal of films. Though some of Dafoe’s most acclaimed roles have been his portrayals of benevolent characters, in a villainous role like John Geiger in Speed 2: Cruise Control, Dafoe is equally adept at commanding a scene, employing a wicked grin and cold, wide eyes as he executes a somewhat absurd plan. The second Speed movie may be a massive failure of a film but Dafoe’s performance makes it not only watchable, but also somewhat enjoyable as well.

Finding Nemo (2003)

By Ian Floodgate

Big-name actors didn’t always do voiceovers for animated films but, since the early 1990s, well-known names such as Robin Williams and Tom Hanks have given memorable voice performances. Despite Willem Dafoe contributing a supporting role in Finding Nemo, his distinctive voice is perfect for Gill, a mysterious Moorish idol fish. Gill comes into the film when he meets Nemo (Alexander Gould), a young and lost clownfish in a fish tank along with other marine species. All the aquatic creatures share the same wish to escape the fish tank.

Dafoe’s voice perfectly fits the range of emotions Gill requires. At first, he comes across as cynical but when he realises that Nemo has the readiness and the perseverance to escape he becomes supportive and Dafoe’s voice suits both opposing attitudes. Sometimes we overlook an actor’s voice, but Finding Nemo proves that Dafoe’s voice is one of his most distinguishing assets, in that it allows him to convincingly portray a range of emotions without requiring a physical presence.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

By Kevin Jones

Dafoe is so perfect for a Wes Anderson film, exemplified in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He plays Klaus, a German assistant to Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). Though Dafoe is not given many lines here, his presence is consistently felt thanks to his comedic skills. His deadpan humor throughout, his physical comedy, and his skill with body language and expressions, shine through in the role. Even his comical German accent is a great touch, while his series of fights with Owen Wilson are some of the funniest moments in the film. However, as with the film itself, Dafoe’s performance is more than just strong comedy. He believably captures the admiration, insecurity, and love that Klaus feels on this ship, wearing Klaus’ devotion for Zissou in his eyes as he stares up at him. It is perhaps not a large role, but it is an important one in the film and one that Dafoe nails.

The Florida Project (2017)

By Matt Schlee

Dafoe’s performance as Bobby in Sean Baker‘s The Florida Project is one of his most endearing. Playing the motel manager tasked with general day-to-day oversight and maintenance, Bobby ends up playing a significant role in policing and protecting the children living in the building. Bobby is able to go toe-to-toe with young Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in terms of pure sarcasm and wit, but he also acts as a sort of guardian of the motel grounds, scaring away a seemingly unsavory character who wants to interact with the kids. His protectiveness over the children of the motel is underscored by his strained relationship with his own son, played by Caleb Landry Jones. The role is one of Dafoe’s least ambitious endeavors yet among his most enjoyable and sympathetic performances to watch.

At Eternity’s Gate (2018)

By Henry Baime

It is a rare and wondrous occurrence for a role to fit an actor so perfectly it seems it was created specifically with the performer in mind, and rarer still for that character to be an actual person. But that is exactly what came to be as Willem Dafoe took on the part of Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. Preparing for the role by learning to paint and studying the artist’s extensive epistolary correspondence with his brother Theo, Dafoe managed to create an enthralling vision of a genius through deep understanding of his thinking and to let any inconsistencies in the rest of the film be lost in his performance. Though a quarter of a century older at the time of filming than van Gogh was when he died, Willem Dafoe not only looks the part, but presents a quiet and philosophical portrait of one of our greatest artists that acutely captures the spirit of van Gogh’s art in a way that is reminiscent, though not derivative, of Dafoe’s earlier turn as Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Lighthouse (2019)

By Ben McDonald

In addition to being one of the best films to come out this year, The Lighthouse also features a top-tier Willem Dafoe performance. Sure to be a cult favorite among the arthouse crowd, Dafoe makes a welcome return to villainy as crude, unhinged sailor Thomas Wake, a maniacal tyrant that tortures Robert Pattinson’s sour-faced Ephraim Winslow throughout the film. Underneath a billowy white beard, permanent drunken scowl, and scruffy sailor’s dialect, it would be easy to call him unrecognizable, but in truth he’s inhabiting the most appreciably “Willem Dafoe” role in a decade. Much like Moondog, Matthew McConaughey’s central character in The Beach Bum earlier this year, the character of Thomas Wake feels more or less like a celebration of Willem Dafoe’s irreplaceable on-screen persona. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to name another actor who could fill his demanding shoes in The Lighthouse, which involves everything from spouting minute-long sailor curses to talking about “spilling the beans” for an uncomfortable amount of time. There’s absolutely nothing like watching Dafoe go straight off the deep end with such solemn sincerity, and only next to Robert Pattinson as his scene partner will audiences find a more delightfully dark performance this year.

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