Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Best Actor 2018: Willem Dafoe in At Eternity's Gate

Willem Dafoe received his fourth Oscar nomination for portraying Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate.

At Eternity's Gate fittingly attempts an impressionistic examination of the life the tortured artist. I will say any film about van Gogh already peaks my interest as I find him an endlessly fascinating subject. I particularly appreciate Julian Schnabel's daring in his approach in this film as he tries to experience essentially every facet of van Gogh's mental state. Although the film brushes (no pun intended) rather than achieves greatness, due to a few inconsistent elements, one them being the camerawork at times where you sometimes only get the sense of what Schnabel and cinematographer Beonoit Delhomme are going for rather than simply experiencing.

An interesting thing about this performance is one could argue there are two potential distractions from the outset. One is while Willem Dafoe would seem ideal casting for van Gogh about twenty to thirty years ago, where is now he's over twenty years older than how old the actual van Gogh was when he died. Although this could be seen as a detriment I will say it never even becomes a distraction, as in a way the age of Dafoe helps to create essentially the idea of the wear of the man's life. It creates an even greater inherent sympathy to the character, as this is not a young man yelling at the world, rather an aging man being withered away by it. The other potential one is Dafoe makes no attempt at an accent reflective of van Gogh's heritage, however Schnabel, wisely, doesn't emphasize accents in any cast member rather seeming to wish to achieve more naturalistic turns. Again this never results into distraction, and it is easy to simply accept Dafoe as van Gogh, in this version of his story. A very atypical one to be sure, which leaves a potentially another difficulty this being the idea of the director's film, but again this is not always a limitation not when you have the right actor working within this vision. Thankfully for this film we have the dynamic Dafoe, who typically doesn't just fade into the background even in minor supporting roles.

Many scenes of the film wish to bring us right within van Gogh's perspective, this is sometimes literally in POV shots, but also more figuratively, which are the more effective set ups I feel. One of the reasons being is with the figurative shots we are not only allowed to view the magnificent landscapes but also allowed to see the meaning of these spaces through Dafoe's performance. Dafoe does not just portray a man simply walking through a landscape, but rather realizes in these moments what they mean to Vincent. Dafoe's physical performance is an essential facet to the film as he manages to express the influence of these images essentially within Vincent. Of course this is at times in simply the reaction of joy at these sights, however it is never slight or simplistic in this regard. Dafoe makes these moments essentially these religious and spiritual experiences for the man. They are not only as such though as Dafoe's work conveys this intensity in his reactions in a way that evokes a certain mania nearly of a man overwhelmed within his senses. There is essentially a madness in this something that defines Dafoe's portrayal of Vincent. This is as Dafoe does not portray a man driven to madness due to being a tortured artist, but rather a mental illness that helps to define his art and his life.

Dafoe's approach to the character is brilliant, and very different from the more manic, though also brilliant, turn by Kirk Douglas. Douglas was a man seething in his pains, where Dafoe is fascinating in his alternative take. Dafoe presents a man in Vincent who fundamentally is unable to connect to the majority of other humans. Dafoe finds this very specific detachment, that is strange yet feels wholly natural in his performance. Dafoe's performance realizes this inability to connect in this most unusual way. In that he is not detached as this unemotional thing, but rather Dafoe expresses this difficulty in essentially the excessively emotional way the man exists, without being able to connect in the right way. I love the enthusiasm that Dafoe brings within Vincent's way of interacting with others yet within that makes it so awkward. Dafoe delivers this optimism within the eyes in these moments as he speaks to a random town person that is outstanding. In that he looks at them as though he is piercing through them towards some greater truth. There again is too much of an intensity within Vincent that Dafoe so effectively delivers, showing this way of alienating others essentially as his way of trying to connect to them is in this foreign method. This is not because Vincent desires it, but rather Dafoe portrays a man operating with a wholly different sense of reality.

Physically Dafoe also conveys this so effectively in his interactions with those around him. Again he's so good in bringing forth the way Vincent is so desperately trying to deliver some understanding yet fails to convey this in an appealing way. We see this in a moment where he is discussing his painting with a woman, but then turns to a man requesting to paint him. The eagerness, and randomness of this moment is so well expressed by Dafoe, as we see him turn off the woman in the moment, and not exactly endear himself to others in his way. The connection, and desire in his request is wholly honest in Dafoe's delivery, but distant through the desperation and apparent randomness of the request. This again is not a fixed understood desperation as played by Dafoe, rather it is the natural state of a man who is so far removed, and to him the request would have made perfect sense. Two of the people we do see him connect with are fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and his brother Theo. This is only sort of, and Dafoe uses these moments to bring even more to life the struggle of existence for Vincent essentially due to his alternative perception of existence. With Gauguin, Dafoe shows Vincent as awkward and unstable, as he follows the far more sort of traditional rebel painter around, as their connection exists solely in Gauguin's respect for his work.

Dafoe, in his scenes with Isaac, portrays Vincent as this follower, who passionately expresses his ideas with him but with the same haphazard quality to this. The difference is Gauguin doesn't mind his eccentricities. In turn Dafoe depicts a bit of an attempt to essentially copy the man's manners to an extent, almost as though he think he can be normal by acting normal as the man does. This is of course as troublesome as being himself, as shown in is especially fantastic moment for Dafoe where the two artists use the same model. Gauguin doing so with a relaxed confidence, as well as through a prior agreement, meanwhile Vincent just joins in. Dafoe is great in the moment as he is exceptionally creepy from the perspective from the woman. As his eyes dart with interest and need, and even the movements are of this grotesque pantomime. Now Dafoe doesn't make Vincent this grotesque caricature in the moment, but rather his performance reveals the painful attempt towards normalcy that he is wholly incapable of. This is different than his moments with his brother. Now Dafoe does not suddenly show a normal man in these interactions, but rather reveals the ability to express himself without being rejected so easily given that his brother's love for him is unquestioned. Dafoe delivers a genuine poignancy in these moments as he portrays Vincent essentially releasing his emotions towards his brothers within all his vulnerabilities and sorrows seeking empathy from the one man he knows he will receive it from and not misinterpret his emotions. 

Dafoe's work is marvelous as this realization of man of being tormented by the very thing that gives him joy. In the painting scenes for example are essential in these moments as Dafoe manages to show the invigoration of the act, but so that it is equally unnerving as this urge of instinct even more so than a desire of will. The duality Dafoe funnels into a natural consistency of the madness of the act as it is for Vincent. He is as enlivened as he is tortured by it and Dafoe makes it all of one spirit in his portrayal of every brush stroke. The same is seen in his moments of dealing with either potential subjects, or those interfering with the act. Dafoe in these moments delivers this urgency that nearly becomes a psychosis as though he is gripped within the act, and is indeed beyond himself. This making the need for that human connection all the palatable in his performance as the only means of escape possible, though Vincent consistently fails in this, as painting is in his easiest form expression yet alienating all the same. That otherwise just leaves the lonely man who is mentally unwell, and trying to hold onto anything in front of him. His moment of being left by Gauguin, is heartbreaking as Dafoe manages to bring such conviction in the horrible anguish that he portrays as a man trying and failing horribly to comprehend being abandoned in this way. Although the most powerful moments for in his performance come in two scenes of confessions of sorts, one right after being left by Gauguin leading to his ear being cut off, then later being met with by a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who is trying to determine his sanity. The timidness that Dafoe brings to Vincent in these scenes is absolutely remarkable, as he portrays man at such a truly vulnerable point carefully trying to explain himself. Dafoe still projects the sense of distance but in a different way as he reveals the calm of the man attempting to clarify himself, even in his most insane acts. In this there is this very specific, and even inspiring passion within his eyes as Dafoe reveals the man that is Vincent as someone who simply sees towards an alternate plane. Dafoe conveys that this both damages and enlightens the man. This is as he explains his view on the life of Jesus to the priest, and in his explanation there is a real power of a man discovering some alternate truth that only he can see that is also reflects itself within his art, even if this torments him all the same. Therein lies the brilliance, beauty and tragedy, that Dafoe captures in his work. In that he expresses the transcendence in Vincent's perspective of the world that reveals itself through the genius of Vincent's work, yet all the same still brings such suffering as it leaves him unable to bridge the gap between himself and the rest of humanity.

27 comments:

Calvin Law said...

Holy guacamole, we have a winner for the lineup here. I wholeheartedly agree with this. Brilliant work and I’m glad he was nominated. That confession scene after cutting off his ear may well be one of the best acted scenes of his career so far - and I also loved the scene of him covering his face with dirt. Thoughts and ratings for the rest of the cast?

Can’t wait till you see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it’s an even greater representation of Schnabel’s talents. Also with regards to the accents matter I found it interesting that Rupert Friend seemed to be trying to do a similar accent to Dafoe’s natural one, which was a nice touch.

Charles H said...

Wow, you really loved him. I can't wait to see this film, it seems like Dafoe can do no wrong recently. I'm really glad he's getting recognized yet again.

Matt Mustin said...

Ohhhh yeah, he's gonna win.

Anonymous said...

My name is Mr. Português Brazil

Bradley Cooper will be in second place.
Otherwise, I bet my heart is that Louis puts Cooper over Dafoe. And also Cooper's performance must be in the TOP5 Overall Rating.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on this scene from Jaws:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eE7Sa-6_vLk

Mitchell Murray said...

You will hear no complaints from me on this one. Though I didn't fall head over heels for his work, necessarily, - and I've seen the movie twice - Dafoe is very, VERY strong in this role, particularly in how he portrays van Gogh's illness and how it affects the most basic of social interactions for him. He's incredibly moving in how he brings so much authenticity and power to the suffering artist, which could've devolved into a grotesque caricature, but doesn't thanks to the man pictured above.

Michael McCarthy said...

As I've said before, how one rates this performance largely depends on how much of the film works for you. In this case it seems like most of it worked for Louis, and so I can see why he gave him the 5.

Bryan L said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the following IASIP episodes?

Charlie Work
The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore (specifically the "Vacation" montage)
The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award

Luke Higham said...

Thank goodness, we've got a five from this lineup and I'm very happy to see Dafoe get his 4th five. :)

Luke Higham said...

I hope you'll be doing Alternate Supporting next. I've always preferred doing Alternate Lead last, especially this year with Hawke, Gosling, Redford, Foster, Reilly, Yoo and Cedergren.

Luke Higham said...

For The Lineup
Ethan Hawke - First Reformed
Ryan Gosling - First Man
Ben Foster - Leave No Trace and Galveston
Robert Redford - The Old Man And The Gun
John Huston - The Other Side Of The Wind
John C. Reilly - The Sisters Brothers and Stan & Ollie (Along with Phoenix and Coogan)
Jakob Cedergren - The Guilty
Yoo Ah-In - Burning
Lucas Hedges - Boy Erased
Marcello Fonte - Dogman

Calvin Law said...

I’m prefer Keith Stanfield over Huston but I’m aware that’s quite unlikely.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: Well honestly, I would like both to be reviewed. If I had my way Huston would be an extra bonus review since The Other Side Of The Wind is a 70s film that didn't see the light of day until now.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: I don't think we need Bogdanovich to be reviewed though. Also, Louis' view on the film has declined considerably since first viewing.

Louis Morgan said...

Calvin:

Isaac - 2.5(Honestly thought he was the weak link of the film and could honestly go lower. This is a shame as this is the only good film he was in, in 2018. Isaac's work though just feels extremely bland and almost uninterested in the material. He just kind of settles on a style of "rebel artist" then calls it a day. There is no since of really who Gauguin is or how he really feels about van Gogh. Although I didn't need the far more confrontational force that was Quinn's Gauguin, Isaac just comes off as nearly a non-entity.)

Friend - 3(Although he isn't in it much I do love the uncompromised empathy in his moments with Dafoe. He shows just the clearest love for his brother in every second of his screentime, as well as the empathetic pain to his suffering. You grant a sense of their shared suffering.)

Mikkelsen - 3.5(Very strong single scene from him as his performance manages to capture a few things in just a short time. This sense of trying to decipher the man that is van Gogh the confusion in it, while also showing this concern towards his state, and a sympathetic if in its own judgemental delivery at first. Mikkelsen is effective in conveying the change in his view of the man subtly, yet powerfully, just as he watches the man explain his atypical perspective.)

Anonymous:

An instance where a bit of bad acting kind of works "A What?" out of the fisherman though works in illustrating sort of bumpkin attitude. I love though that Dreyfuss stands out separated from everyone else including Brody, who Scheider correctly portrays gleeful over initial success, as separated from the "joy" as the outsider who knows his right, even if his argument technically should make him not so likable.

Luke:

Try not jump to conclusions, as my opinion hasn't changed regarding the film, it's simply one I wanted to revisit before "ranking" it in anyway given how enigmatic it is. I do think it is film that has been dismissed out of hand far too quickly by many.

Bryan:

Charlie Work - (A wholly great Charlie episode, that isn't always the case, that gets to have so much fun for atypical antics of the gang, especially through its "one shot" montage of Charlie making sure to get every part of the scheme right. Also nothing better than Dennis as the bar tender who is a bit of a character "alright alright alright")

The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore - (A enjoyable episode, though I think the Mac/Frank story is pretty weak, the fairy tale Charlie stuff is fun, and then the horror of the Dennis/Dee portion is just wonderful every step of the way, especially just how dark it goes with that montage.)

The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award - (Love this episode as again does meta commentary brilliantly. Love the little bits of the "very prestigious bar that not a lot of people go to" or the "one where everyone goes to". Has particularly great fun with the contrasts between the gang and the traditional populist sitcom lead, especially as Mac fails horribly to be the endearing bar tender, and Dee is bathed in "pleasant" light. Crown of the episode though may be Charlie's two songs, which sadly won neither Charlie Day or Kelly even a nomination.)

Luke Higham said...

Louis: I'm happy to hear that.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Is this Dafoe's best work, and your updated top twenty acting moments of his.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: How would you rank the Oscar Hosts that you've seen. Also for those that have done it more than once, choose only their best effort.

Luke Higham said...

Everyone apart from Louis, what are your most anticipated performances for 2019.

Calvin Law said...

Luke: my top 10 would be,

Shia Labouef in Honey Boy
Taika Waititi in Jojo Rabbit
Taron Egerton in Rocketman
Lupita Nyong’o In Us
Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems
August Diehl in Radegund
Robert Pattinson in High Life
Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse
Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale
Tom Hanks as Mr Rogers

Bryan L said...

Luke: Here are mine

Waititi in JoJo Rabbit
Sandler in Uncut Gems
Phoenix in Joker
Dafoe in The Lighthouse
Downey Jr. in Avengers: Endgame
Robbie, DiCaprio, Pitt and Lewis in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Everyone in that film really)
Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers
Pitt in Ad Astra
Bale and Damon in Ford vs. Ferrari
And although I don't have high hopes for the film, I am curious to see what Efron will fare as Ted Bundy

Bryan L said...

Louis: RUMM HAAMMM!!!

Speaking of awards, are there any reasons you think the show just flat out keeps getting unrecognized by the Emmys? Although I'm aware that you don't care much for that award show.

Emi Grant said...

Luke:

The cast of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
De Niro, Pacino & Pesci in The Irishman
Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems
Robert Pattinson in High Life
Bale & Damon on Ford vs Ferrari
Phoenix in Joker
Amy Adams & Gary Oldman in The Woman in the Window
Hedges & Labeouf in Honey Boy
Waititi in Jojo Rabbit
Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers
Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn


Luke Higham said...

Louis: Thoughts on the Burning Bush scene from The Prince Of Egypt.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the screenplays of Rebecca and The Best Years of Our Lives.

Anonymous said...

Louis, Have you seen any other 2018 films lately.

Louis Morgan said...

Tahmeed:

Possibly.

1. After cutting his ear - At Eternity's Gate
2. Asking for the Cross - Last Temptation of Christ
3. How he became a vampire - Shadow of the Vampire
4. Dealing with a pedophile - The Florida Project
5. Speaking to the priest - At Eternity's Gate
6. Thanks for not choosing me - The Life Aquatic
7. "Some Day Honey I will" - Wild At Heart
8. Bird talking - The Florida Project
9. Speaking to Paul - The Last Temptation of Christ
10. Gauguin Leaves - At Eternity's Gate
11. Hotel Room - Light Sleeper
12. Proudly Stepping forward - The Life Aquatic
13. Stopping Barnes - Platoon
14. Being comforted by his brother - At Eternity's Gate
15. The camera - Shadow of the Vampire
16. Losses - The Last Temptation of Christ
17. "You're dead" - Wild At Heart
18. Thoughts on the war - Platoon
19. Who he may kill - Shadow of the Vampire
20. A Suicide - Light Sleeper

Luke:

1. Steve Martin
2. Billy Crystal
3. Jimmy Kimmel
4. Hugh Jackman
5. Chris Rock
6. Ellen DeGeneres
7. Jon Stewart
8. Seth MacFarlane
9. Steve Martin/Alec Baldwin
10. Neil Patrick Harris
11million. James Franco/Anne Hathaway

Bryan:

Probably because for the longest time, if you were a darker (were not on HBO) you were ignored, and they never backtrack. It is mind boggling for example that The Simpsons was never nominated for best comedy, meanwhile Family Guy was, a travesty.

Luke:

An interesting moment though a touch rushed through pacing wise. Interesting though through its approach as this softer dreamy quality, that is still powerful in its own way but very different from sort of the commanding approach of the 56 version.

Anonymous:

Let me get you those eventually.

Anonymous:

The Front Runner
Aquaman
Wildlife