Any list arguing for the five best Willem Dafoe movies will be a testament to versatility. Willem Dafoe is distinctive as a presence, but no one would ever call him limited as an actor.
Fearlessness and odd charisma are two focal points in the career of Willem Dafoe. The fearlessness gives him an interest in playing just about any character to come his way. There is also a self-awareness of his somewhat-unconventional looks, and his willingness to use that to the advantage of creating a better character. The charisma comes in somewhere along the way, and it comes with the many other unique gifts Dafoe has brought to an acting career of 30+ years.
There is also far more versatility in Dafoe’s career than he sometimes gets credit for. Many of his best characters, even the ones who possess a striking tone of malevolence and/or madness, are fundamentally weakened in some way. They are men who try to fill that deficit with something else, tangible or otherwise. Their journey rarely ends in success, but it always leaves us with someone has made an impression on an audience. Dafoe can bring those qualities to a high-minded drama, as easily as he can lend them to broad comedies, or just stuff that is no more than the sum of some really weird parts.
As of this writing, Dafoe is up for his fourth Academy Award. Rather than create a surprise no one really asked for, or give another one to the usual bunch, it would be nice to see Dafoe in the spotlight. He doesn’t need it to remain one of the most prolific, inventive character actors of all time. At the same time, he has earned such honors a few dozen times over. Few can surprise you with their performance as Willem Dafoe can.
1. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
After a (mostly cut) debut in 1980’s infamous Heaven’s Gate, Willem Dafoe appeared in a slew of character roles in The Loveless, The Hunger, and Streets of Fire. While those movies and roles gave him a measure of distinction, To Live and Die in L.A. was the first time he really got to show his capacity for playing enigmatic menaces. William Friedkin’s maligned masterpiece puts Dafoe in the role of a strange counterfeiter, who runs up against two very determined Secret Service agents. The story is fine, but Friedkin gives everything the same desperation and vitality that he lent to his more famous crime film The French Connection.
There is a build to the collision between these forces that will probably remind you of The Dark Knight. Much like that film, so much of the energy eventually comes down to the primary criminal figure. Dafoe takes an interesting character and proceeds to make him unforgettable.
2. Mississippi Burning (1988)
Say what you want about the film’s use of white saviors, particularly in the sense that this is supposed to be a historical narrative based around the murders of three civil rights works in Mississippi in 1964, but the performances in Alan Parker’s controversial Mississippi Burning are high marks for everyone involved. Gene Hackman makes for a surprisingly endearing redneck who managed to get out of his own small hick town. More interesting is Willem Dafoe as the quiet, fierce, and perhaps naïve partner to Hackman. It is one of the strongest elements to a somewhat uneven, but nonetheless riveting film.
The same year this was released, Dafoe appeared in the other highly-controversial release of 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ. It is a remarkable actor indeed to play Jesus Christ and a justice-obsessed FBI agent in rural hell. If nothing else, the movie is worth watching for the endlessly-fascinating chemistry between two pros like Hackman and Dafoe.
3. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
A career like Willem Dafoe’s can be frustrating to explain/celebrate with just five movies. We have to jump around quite a bit, and we have to ignore literally dozens of good performances in excellent-to-shit movies.
To put it another way, we could easily find five movies in the 12 years that takes us from Mississippi Burning to Shadow of the Vampire.
There are a lot of things to like about Shadow of the Vampire, which puts some very ancient, supernatural implications to the story of the filming of F.W. Murnau’s silent horror classic Nosferatu. John Malkovich is great as Murnau, although I genuinely have no idea how accurate the portrayal is. We can be pretty sure that Max Schreck, who played the titular vampire, was not in fact an actual vampire. However, the tone of this bizarre comedy is such that we more or less buy it. The biggest reason for that is Willem Dafoe as Schreck. Like any brilliant actor with a good opportunity to play a monster, Dafoe looks for ways to genuinely surprise us. Such moments populate the entire film, and it is absolutely absurd that Dafoe didn’t win his Oscar for this.
4. Auto Focus (2002)
Even at a point in which Dafoe is now very easily recognized for any number of roles, his talent for disappearing into both real-life and fictional characters remains as remarkable as ever. Playing tech expert and local pervert John Henry Carpenter, who may or may not have killed beloved TV actor and local pornographer Bob Crane, Dafoe creates one of the most chilling characters of his long career.
The tone of the movie, which is an oddly-cheerful depiction of a man’s personal and professional freefall, doesn’t really reflect just how scary Carpenter really is. Dafoe has been pulling that trick for years. He doesn’t always play a creepy/evil guy, but he’ll find ways to do that in movies and moments you probably won’t expect. Again, it’s that capacity within his range of talents to surprise us at every turn. The best Willem Dafoe movies reflect this beautifully.
5. The Florida Project (2017)
The main thread of Sean Baker’s poignant depiction of lower-class Floridians on the outskirts of the empire that Disney has built concerns a young woman (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter (Brooklynn Prince). Willem Dafoe plays the beleaguered, gently heroic, endlessly sympathizing manager of the wretched hotel where the mother and daughter live with others in similar-to-worse situations. His story hovers in an around this main thread, never distracting, but offering glimpses of the good people that do exist in this world. One scene in particular, involving Dafoe’s character and a potential child molester, is so stirring, it may just move you to tears.
You can feel the wear and tear of life on these people. Dafoe’s character most of all, but perhaps, that is only because he’s older. The years have not been kind, but he remains kind nonetheless. That is one encouraging takeaway of several from The Florida Project.