Who better than director Julian Schnabel and actor Willem Dafoe to present the final days of painter Vincent Van Gogh? This turns out to be the perfect duo to tell one of art history's strangest stories.
At Eternity's Gate marks Schnabel's first feature in eight years. He's given his interpretation of artist's lives before (Basquiat, Before Night Falls), but telling the story of Van Gogh, a brilliant yet tortured man who lived his final days in and out of asylums, is next-level stuff. Thankfully, he's up to the task.
Having Dafoe play Van Gogh is some serious bet-hedging, for sure. The man who played cinema's all-time great Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (his performance here actually parallels that one in some ways) gets to let his tortured artist freak flag fly. Elements of the film are shocking and sorrowful, but when Van Gogh is outside painting, the film lights up. Dafoe's performance definitely reflects the joy and awe of those paintings.
The movie doesn't shy away from the troubles and mania that led the man to chop his own ear off (an act he commits off screen). It also gives us a joyful Van Gogh, who revels in his chances to just paint something, whether it's a visceral landscape or a face he appreciates. Dafoe's Van Gogh is, at once, both gentle and vicious, but always earnest in his attempts to make art. As he professes in the film, it's the painting that makes him feel alive.
While Dafoe is in his early 60s, he convincingly portrays Van Gogh, in his late 30s when he died. It's believable that Mr. Van Gogh probably looked a little worse for wear, and Dafoe passes for an almost-40 guy in bad mental and physical health. Schnabel's camera spends a lot of time with nothing but Dafoe's jagged, bearded face in the frame. Honestly, the actor has never looked cooler in a movie. He truly captures the essence of Van Gogh, that somewhat bothered but fascinating figure whom often painted portraits of himself. Dafoe is those portraits come to life.
Obviously, the movie wouldn't be much if it just featured Dafoe looking really cool. He gives Van Gogh great depth, certainly more than Kirk Douglas did when he portrayed the artist decades ago in Lust for Life.
In the film's most riveting moment, Dafoe basically reenacts the look of Van Gogh's self-portrait shortly after cutting his ear off, his head wrapped in a bandage partially kept in place by a hat. Van Gogh calmly ruminates on why he thinks he may've cut off his ear, the strangest of gifts for his artist friend Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).
Dafoe's delivery of this monologue presents a convincing vision for why the artist did something so odd. It's insane, but it made total sense to him because he was insane. He seems to be at relative peace with his own problems. He doesn't know why he has them, he just has them. It's sad to behold this struggling man but, to the world that would later gobble up those paintings that were vastly overlooked while he lived and breathed, the tragedy of his insanity was essential to the art itself. His paintings wouldn't have turned out like they did had he not been a little mad, and Schnabel makes this point without preaching.
The look of the movie befits Van Gogh, calm at times then a little spazzy at others (lots of handheld camera). Many of the scenes where Van Gogh paints are done with handheld, making it feel as if you are hanging out with him while he paints away.
At Eternity's Gate contains an astonishing Dafoe performances, finally giving one of the all-time great visual artists a movie deserving of his artistry.