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Man on the Outside: The Films of Willem Dafoe

1985, “To Live and Die in L.A.”: Rick Masters sets fire to a painting on the side of a beautiful L.A. home. He’s rail-thin, clad in black, and has a chillingly focused stare. There’s an eternal calm to him, but it’s anything but calming. He’s the most ruthless character in a film populated with them on both sides of the law. He seems utterly alienated from humanity, the kind of guy who scares even the worst people.

1986, “Platoon”: Sergeant Gordon Elias carries his weapon over his shoulders as the platoon makes its way through the dense forest and intense heat of Vietnam. Where the other soldiers mock or ignore Private Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), Elias grabs a load of Taylor’s gear and gently chides him, helping him to his feet. He speaks softly and smiles warmly, the one voice of goodness in godforsaken circumstances.

Willem Dafoe broke out with both of these characters—one satanic, one angelic—a year apart from each other, his agile body and distinctively angular face stretching in diametrically opposed directions. He’s followed that pattern throughout his career, veering wildly back and forth between virtuous and venal, sinners and saints, comic book villains and Jesus Christ. At the same time, he tries to find the human in the monster, the flaws in the hero, the painful pasts and deepest desires of both.

He’s back in a semi-heroic role as Bobby in “The Florida Project,” one of the kindest, most decent characters he’s ever played. Even so, he’s still someone whose every quiet moment communicates decades’ worth of disappointment and hard choices as he runs The Magic Castle, a small motel purposefully trying to call to mind the "Happiest Place on Earth." It’s one of the high points of a nearly 40-year career that’s seen him teaming with directors ranging from Oliver Stone to Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog to Theo Angelopoulos, Abel Ferrara to Wes Anderson, often on strange, difficult projects. That speaks to his background in experimental theater as a founding member of The Wooster Group, and to the kind of roles he’s attracted to. If there’s a constant to his best work, he’s a man on the outside, removed in one way or another from his environment and circumstances, whether he’s a figure of good or evil.

Early in his career, Dafoe seemed destined to exclusively play the latter. After an uncredited appearance in Michael Cimino’s notorious flop/reclaimed cult object “Heaven’s Gate,” Dafoe had his first leading role in “The Loveless,” the directorial debut of Kathryn Bigelow (co-directed by Monty Mongomery, the Cowboy from “Mulholland Drive”). Covered almost head-to-toe in leather, Dafoe cuts a menacing figure as Vance, the head of a biker gang whose first major scene sees him leaning into the window of a woman he helps on the side of the road and forcing a kiss, seemingly just to get a reaction. That’s his modus operandi throughout much of the film—he’s strikingly out of place in this square town, and he’s going to play up every moment of that, even if it’s just to see how people react. He’s a gang leader again in Walter Hill’s delirious rock musical/actioner “Streets of Fire,” with the director introducing him in a crowd, first obscured by darkness and smoke, then lit up, his glare, pronounced cheekbones and exaggerated hairstyle making a major hairstyle for Hill’s “rock & roll fable.” Dafoe’s Raven Shaddock is a little less defined than Dafoe’s other villains, but he has a similarly rapacious smirk and motive, establishing himself as the cruelest figure in tough world, one whose territory seems like no man’s land for anyone but the most suicidal hero.

The best of Dafoe’s early villain roles, and the one that got people to take notice, was in William Friedkin’s gloriously sleazy “To Live and Die in L.A.” Dafoe is ineffably creepy as counterfeiter Eric ‘Rick’ Masters, whose cold-eyed stare and intense concentration when he’s making phony bills communicates someone who’s as professional as he is psychotic. As he paints out flaws and examines plates, he moves with a kind of sterile precision that makes him seem inhuman. That’s reflected in any scene in which he kills someone—where William Petersen’s renegade cop is hotheaded and prone to explosions, Masters neither raises his voice nor contorts his face in anger, instead spitting kiss-off lines with irritated contempt for the people who’ve crossed his path. When he finally does smile later in the film after receiving a package from Petersen, it’s so far removed from what we’ve seen from him that it only makes him creepier and more alien.

Having established himself as a first-rate ghoul, one would easily expect him to take on the role of one of the more malignant soldiers in “Platoon,” like the psychotic Bunny (Kevin Dillon) or the unfeeling, cowardly O’Neill (John C. McGinley). Oliver Stone instead cast Dafoe as Sgt. Elias, remarking in The Oliver Stone Experience that he “looked like a traditional bad guy” but that there was something thrilling about going the other way with it.

Indeed, Dafoe is so unexpectedly kind in “Platoon” that it’s difficult to know whether to trust him early on, something Stone plays with when Taylor gets high and Dafoe pushes him to smoke out of the firing end of a weapon. But he’s a true father figure to the more peace-minded half of the platoon, one with an almost mystical aura around him as he tries to guide his men physically and spiritually. Dafoe gets training in for playing Jesus here, getting both the film’s most righteously angry scene (his confrontation with Tom Berenger’s Barnes over the murder of civilians) and the most iconic (a Christlike pose as he drops to his death). His most defining scene, however, is an exchange late at night with Taylor that slightly undercuts Elias’ saintly glow. When he’s asked about whether he believes in what he’s doing, he looks up to the sky, as if looking through time. “In ’65 … yeah. Now … no.” There’s a slight laugh in his voice at the first ellipses, a longer pause at the second, as if he’s laughing at himself for ever being so stupid and taking in the pain that he’s caused, even with good intentions. He may be a rare voice of reason in hell, but he has as many sins as anyone.

Dafoe capitalized on his unexpected, Oscar-nominated turn as a good guy in 1986's "Platoon" with a pair of leading roles as somewhat tarnished good men. His turn in “Mississippi Burning” as the more strait-laced of two FBI agents investigating the disappearance of three civil rights workers is a bit too one-note and virtuous, with the script giving him little room to explore any conflict his character might feel over his utilization of partner Gene Hackman’s more brutal tactics. He’s more in his element, bizarrely, as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” despite Sergio Leone reportedly opining that Dafoe has “the face of a psychopathic killer, not the face of Our Lord.” But that’s part of what makes Dafoe’s work as Jesus so fascinating, and perhaps the greatest performance of his career.

A far cry from the dully serene portrayals in other media, Dafoe’s Jesus is genuinely tortured, his early scenes showing a man who doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. He considers himself “a liar, a hypocrite” for helping the Romans crucify Jews and for his desire for Mary Magdalene. Dafoe captures the half-human, half-divine postulation of Jesus by portraying him as a man not fully comfortable in either mode, not fully understanding God’s plan for him even as he attempts to reject his own human nature, looking embarrassed around Mary Magdalene. When he does buy into his own divine nature, he’s a genuinely thrilling presence, his sermon on the mount beginning intimately, with the actor crouched and smiling, before its hairpin turns into holy zeal. But Dafoe locates the human flaws in this version of Christ even as he embarks on the savior’s path: off-putting arrogance when he rejects his human mother, a frightening tendency to anger, an erratic nature that frustrates his disciples, and a fear of his fate that’s more palpable than in any depiction of Gethsemane. When he finally finds some respite in the film’s controversial coda, it’s easy to see the pull of rejecting his mission, given the psychological and spiritual pain he’s already gone through before the crucifixion. The film is ultimately more satisfying and more moving than the vast majority of filmed versions of The Bible because Dafoe’s journey back toward salvation and away from temptation is so hard-won.

The actor embodies temptation itself in “Born on the Fourth of July,” his second film with Stone. Dafoe’s Charlie is a darker version of Tom Cruise’s Ron Kovic—both veterans are paralyzed, but Charlie’s more comfortable in his hedonistic getaway from reality, sucking down mezcal (and the worm) and making obscene gestures with his tongue. He’s also quicker to anger than Dafoe’s character in “Platoon,” eventually stranding himself and Cruise in the desert. He’s rejected everything he’s come from and everything he’s gone through, to the point where his every pronouncement boils down to “fuck ‘em all.” When he’s left alone with Ron, his instinct is to lash out at his essential mirror image, both for his inability to openly deal with the atrocities they’ve committed and for his inability to find anything to hang onto. He may be a more painful figure than Kovic, who we’re able to see turn his pain into activism and true heroism. Charlie, given no resolution, is just lost.

Dafoe went back into the desert for David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” playing possibly the creepiest, ugliest character of his career, both internally and externally. What makes Bobby Peru so unsettling is that his every gesture and line feels like a violation of personal space. Lynch fixes Dafoe with a pair of worn-down, brown dentures and a pencil-thin mustache, and Dafoe emphasizes those features, his slow break into a smile after he asks Lula’s age allowing his repulsiveness to signal his wolfish, predatory tendencies. Bobby’s a veteran himself, as we learn in a throwaway line, but one gets the sense he was more at ease with atrocities committed overseas than Dafoe’s earlier characters. His later scene with Lula, the most uncomfortable in a film filled with them, sees Dafoe doing everything he can to invade her personal space and privacy, whether he’s across the room, leaning against a doorframe and sticking his chest out, or when he’s actively menacing her, mocking her fear by lowering his voice and head before snarling and grabbing her. “Wild at Heart” is filled with outlaws and creeps of all kinds, but Bobby Peru is the most memorable and the most frightening because Dafoe plays him as someone who’s abandoned all pretense to love, decency and humanity and embraced something far outside it.

Dafoe has worked with many masters of American cinema, but none more frequently than Paul Schrader, with whom he’s collaborated six times. Schrader’s most notable works with Dafoe cast him as a classic outsider while emphasizing the actor’s capacity for playing a pathological level of neediness. That separates Dafoe’s John LeTour in the great “Light Sleeper” from the likes of Travis Bickle, who operates in the same existential malaise but who’s inclined to violently react against a society that’s rejected him. By comparison, LeTour’s gazes ache with a need to be accepted. His reconnection with ex-flame Marianne Jost (Dana Delany) is both a desire to recapture a lost past and a need to demonstrate that he’s changed, that he’s kicked his addiction and is ready to kick his job as a dealer. There's desperation on Dafoe’s face as he’s rejected anew, as he causes Delaney more pain, as he reaches out to a psychic (Mary Beth Hurt) for any sort of spiritual guidance or signal that he isn’t doomed. By the time he finally does connect—with his former boss (Susan Sarandon), no less—the connection follows years of being on the outside looking in, only to find a simple, retrospectively inevitable one in the same outside space.

The same mercy isn’t afforded to Dafoe’s John Henry Carpenter in Schrader’s “Auto Focus,” possibly the saddest character in the actor’s repertoire. There’s more than a hint of Bobby Peru in Carpenter, the friend of “Hogan’s Heroes” actor Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) who joined him on his sexual escapades and was eventually accused of his murder. Somehow, Dafoe finds the humanity in Carpenter, an avowed swinger who grows quieter and shyer when trying to communicate his love for Crane without pushing him away. His embarrassment when Crane makes a homophobic comment or joke at his expense is palpable. In his final phone call with Crane, Dafoe plays Carpenter’s love and lust for his friend more openly, massaging his crotch with his hand and shrinking and covering his face when he’s rejected. He lashes out at the end, only to contort his face in pain immediately after. He’ll never have his friend’s fame and natural appeal to women, but he’s okay with being a hanger-on in Hollywood. It’s that loss of companionship that crushes him.

Dafoe’s nastiest character in a Schrader film is Mad Dog in the uneven but effective exploitation flick “Dog Eat Dog,” in which Schrader pushes how far we’re willing to extend our pity to Dafoe by casting him as both the most repulsive and the most pathetic character in the film. Introduced getting fucked up on drugs (complete with a scene in which Dafoe stretches his malleable face to its limits) and violently murdering his girlfriend and her daughter, Mad Dog is, simply put, gross. He spends the film unrepentantly murdering people and creeping out even his closest colleagues. And yet, late in the film, he reaches out to Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), painfully saying that he knows his partner doesn’t like him, but that he always wanted to be his friend. Dafoe’s sandy voice sounds broken, his jerky head movements constantly checking to see if Diesel can keep himself from judging him. When he screws up one too many times and Diesel’s had it, Dafoe’s collapse into a blubbering mess is, if not affecting, at least pitiable. He’s earned being viewed as a monster and a fuck-up, but there’s something painful in seeing that he knows it.

Outside of Schrader, Dafoe’s most frequent collaborator is Abel Ferrara, who directed him in one of his most effectively minimalist performances in “New Rose Hotel.” Much of the final 30 minutes of the film sees Dafoe largely alone, haunted by memories and working them over in his head to try to make sense of them. Whether one makes sense of what, exactly, is going on (or whether that matters), his essential loneliness and regret reverberates throughout the film. That same feeling is equally pronounced, and more vocalized, in Ferrara’s “4:44 Last Day on Earth,” which posits that humanity’s final moments will be much like the normal day—the same desires, the same fights, the same need to find someone or something. Dafoe has moments of true despair in the film, but he’s at his most effective in quiet moments with his girlfriend (Shanyn Leigh), the two finally locating a moment of peace before they’re engulfed by nothingness.

Dafoe’s best performance for Ferrara is in the criminally underseen (and undistributed in the U.S.) “Go Go Tales,” in which the director and actor’s shared affinity for outsiders comes together for the director’s warmest film. As Ray Ruby, the owner and emcee of a struggling go-go club, he’s a funny and cheerful presence onstage and a desperate man as he fights to keep his place open. An early scene sees Dafoe in hysterics, leaning in to the television and bobbing around as he tries to figure out whether he’s won the lottery that might save the club, before breaking down from laughter to tears when it looks like it’s all settled. Later, as he tries to convince the value of keeping open a home to fellow outcasts, oddballs and creatives, he vacillates from self-justification to desperation. “You wanna kill me? You wanna kill my dream? You wanna take my heart?” Things may not last forever for Ray and company, but they’ve fought to keep what little they have, and that matters.

Many of Dafoe’s best performances have been overlooked by audiences and awards bodies, but Oscar bit a second time for his work as a fictionalized version of Max Schreck in “Shadow of the Vampire,” in which the “Nosferatu” star actually is a vampire. Dafoe takes pleasure exaggerating his already distinctive lined face and toothy smile under heavy make-up, and he’s equally creepy and funny as he toys with F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich), taking a perverse joy in promising to eat more of his crew. Dafoe’s best scene locates the last vestiges of humanity in a literal monster as he drinks with the crew. “It made me sad,” he says of “Dracula,” quietly intoning all of the things vampires forget and remember about humanity. He’s damned, both personally and cosmically, and all he can do is embrace it.

Dafoe has balanced offbeat projects with turns in big budget projects to pay the bills, with the films usually ranging from mediocre (“Clear and Present Danger”) to terrible (“Speed 2: Cruise Control”), but he got one of his best roles in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” The film gives Dafoe the opportunity to play both Jekyll and Hyde, something he clearly relishes in the film’s famous mirror scene. It’s thrilling to see him seamlessly transition back and forth between the two, with Norman Osborn’s neutral stance and fearful demeanor giving way to the Green Goblin’s exaggerated movements, gravelly voice, manic eyes and horrible grin. Throughout the film, Dafoe increasingly suggests that the Goblin persona was always a part of Osborn, particularly as he creepily eyes, then cruelly disparages his son’s girlfriend. Yet Dafoe never loses sight of the man, evoking pity as he prostrates himself for the Goblin and, in his final moment, shows the slightest bit of shame over his deeds and the possibility that his son may find out who he really was.

Dafoe’s recent years have seen him working multiple times with both Wes Anderson and Lars von Trier, both of whom have successfully used his eerier qualities in small roles (“Nymphomaniac” for von Trier; “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for Anderson). Anderson also brought out the funniest performance of Dafoe’s career as Klaus Daimler, first mate to Bill Murray’s oceanographer in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Introduced as being “calm, collected, German,” Klaus is unfailingly loyal to Steve and suspicious of anyone who might steal his thunder or get between the two. Dafoe’s exaggerated accent and clipped manner of speaking make him initially seem like a potential villain, but Anderson, more than anyone outside of Schrader, draws on Dafoe’s ability to project extreme neediness. Klaus’ cracked voice and scrunched face whenever he’s hurt or minimized is funny, but both the actor and the director take his desire to belong seriously.  

Von Trier, meanwhile, draws on Dafoe’s capacity to play thoughtlessness and cruelty, stemming from fear, in “Antichrist.” The director gets some good jokes in at Dafoe’s therapist (referred to only as “He”) by having him ask inane questions of his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg), before toying with our sympathies as she grows increasingly unhinged. Ever the provocateur, von Trier uncomfortably leaves the question of his hang-ups with women open-ended, prodding us all the way, but it's to his credit, and Dafoe’s, that the male character is never admirable. The character’s condescension and remove from his wife throughout is jarring, his minimization of her real fears and grief painful. The film’s title could easily refer to either character, even as Dafoe’s monstrousness is more rational and contained than usual. His fear of and hatred toward emotion, his wife, and women in general generates the same kind of disgust.

Dafoe so excels at playing creeps and weirdos that many have remarked at how anomalous his performance as a genuinely good man in “The Florida Project” is. That’s an oversimplification, but his work does indeed stand out for its remarkable gentleness. As Bobby, he has to walk a fine line between protecting the poor residents of his motel and making sure they toe the line. His irritation with the children and their parents is often real, whether they’re shutting down the motel’s power just to see what’ll happen or spilling ice cream on his floor. At the same time, that irritation falls by the wayside easily—he breaks into laughter when Halley (Bria Vinaite) suggests he doesn’t trust her (“You got me there!”), and the look of genuine delight on his face when he becomes a reluctant participant in a game of hide-and-go-seek.

Like the movie itself, Dafoe’s performance gradually reveals pain beneath its warm exterior. Sometimes it surfaces in his reaction to a potential predator hanging around the kids; Dafoe masking his anger with a mock-naïve tone and exaggerated friendliness before exploding. At other points, it comes from the pained look on his face as he desperately tries to make the lives of Halley and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) better, or shield the latter from the pain her mother will inevitably put her through. Still, it resonates just as loudly in his quietest moments as he smokes a cigarette alone, leaning over a railing, years’ worth of Halleys and Moonees echoing in his mind, many of whose stories likely didn’t end well. In a sense, the role is Dafoe’s career come full circle, an outsider acting as a guardian for other outsiders and outcasts, trying mightily to give them a chance.

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