Just as he has throughout 35 years of screen acting, the chameleonic Willem Dafoe is doing his bit this holiday moviegoing season for both art and commerce. For the former, in collaboration with acclaimed painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, the three-time Academy Award® nominee is unveiling a much lauded, acutely focused performance as the mature Vincent Van Gogh in the visually enticing biopic At Eternity’s Gate, opening this weekend in U.S. theaters, for which he already claimed Volpi Cup Best Actor honors at this year’s Venice Film Festival and has been proclaimed “magnificent” by The New York Times and “extraordinary” by the Los Angeles Times. On the commerce front, the former Spider-Man 2002-2007 trilogy Green Goblin villain assumes the potentially benevolent mentor-like part of Nuidis Vulko, counselor to Jason Momoa’s title character in the underwater world of Atlantis, in the long-awaited Christmas release of director James Wan's Aquaman. He’s checked many good and evil boxes across the decades, including solid work in the sold-out Twilight Time titles Mississippi Burning (1988) and Wild at Heart (1990), and the in-demand thespian has also counted other real-life individuals among his gallery of film faces, including Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), T.S. Eliot in Tom & Viv (1994) and Max Schreck in his Oscar®-nominated Shadow of the Vampire (2000).
Another career highlight among Dafoe’s collection of real figures is his shady, needy John Henry Carpenter, the voyeuristic, cutting-edge video technician who befriends and accompanies ill-fated actor Bob Crane (played pitch-perfectly by Greg Kinnear) in a self-destructive lifestyle odyssey in sexual obsession, in director Paul Schrader’s mesmerizing, shudder-inducing Auto Focus (2002). The actor described his approach to the role, both technical and instinctual, in a conversation with Aboutfilm.com blogger Carlo Cavagna for a Men Behaving Badly essay: “It’s always a combination of things. Research. You take whatever’s available to you, particularly when you’re playing a character that's based on a real-life character. And then you do whatever you feel like you need to do. Sometimes it’s learning a skill. [For Auto Focus], I could have thrown myself into the technology of those early video machines. To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel the need. I felt the need to know only as much as I had to perform in a scene. I always feel like you take whatever helps you to pretend, to feel the authority to pretend. And sometimes, when you grab stuff that you don't need, it creates a clutter. It creates a responsibility to details and things that obscure what you're really talking about.This movie is not about video cameras. But, at the same time, in order to play the scenes and feel confident enough not to fall out of the scene, to be holding the video camera with some kind of authority and ownership, you have to know enough about it to have that happen. So, you’re always walking a line, but you can always ask yourself, ‘What do I need? What do I need? What do I need to feel like I can inhabit that character?’ It’s always a mix of things. It’s moronically simple in a way, because if you look at the script, you see what the character has to do. You have to know how to do those things, and do them well. Particularly if it’s a specialized profession – you learn that profession because it colors the action so much.”
Schrader and Dafoe had history, having already worked on Light Sleeper (1992) and Affliction (1997), so they had developed a working shorthand; Kinnear, whose prior roles drew on his natural amiability, was the wild card whom Schrader had to steer toward darker areas, and Dafoe proved an astonishingly apt collaborator. As San Francisco Chronicle film critic Edward Guthmann observed: “It was a weirdly symbiotic relationship, one in which Crane held most of the cards and Carpenter – a suspect in Crane’s murder, but never convicted – was reduced to a pathetic hanger-on. Dafoe, perfectly cast with his gaunt, Gila monster face, captures the groveling Carpenter and provides an ideal foil to Kinnear’s college-boy affability.” The fearless Dafoe, so relatably tender in last year’s The Florida Project (2017), for which he received Los Angeles and New York Film Critics, National Board of Review and National Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actor laurels as well as an® Academy Award® nomination, wears the colors of art and commerce well in his choices of material, and the unnerving Auto Focus, available to explore on an extras-laden TT hi-def Blu-ray, stands tall in that tradition before eternity’s gate.