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The Lighthouse: the 9 most intense Willem Dafoe performances


Critics and film festival audiences have been blown away by intense thriller The Lighthouse, which centres on two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) who slowly succumb to madness.

Directed by The Witch’s Robert Eggers, the movie is captured in black and white in a restrictive aspect ratio – all the better for enhancing the claustrophobic sense of terror.

While the movie is relatively new territory for future Batman Pattinson, it should surprise no one that Dafoe is captivating as Thomas Wake, an elderly former sailor concerned with drinking and telling tales of the sea. After all, the veteran star has been playing intense characters for decades, specialising in people that seem larger than life, even by Hollywood’s standards.

In anticipation of The Lighthouse’s release in January, we’ve selected a few of our favourite Dafoe performances…

1. Sergeant Elias Grodin (Platoon, 1986)

This is the role that made Dafoe an icon of cinema. Oliver Stone’s harrowing Vietnam war drama Platoon unfolds through the eyes of young volunteer (Charlie Sheen), as Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias Grodin battles with bitter Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) for control of their unit.

A more idealistic character than Barnes, the spiritually inclined Elias tragically meets his end in a death scene that’s one of the great visual moments in cinema history. The film would earn Dafoe the first of his four Academy Award nominations, in this case for Best Supporting Actor.

Ironically, he went up against Berenger for the same award, although it was ultimately won by Michael Caine for Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters.

2. Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988)

It doesn’t get more intense than Martin Scorsese’s fictional depiction of the life of Jesus Christ (played by Dafoe), which imagines the various temptations he would encounter during his time on Earth.

The film caused a lot of controversy due to its deviations from Biblical scripture – however, Dafoe’s lead performance is invested with compassion and depth that would not be possible in a simple historical epic. He brought earthy, recognisable humanity to what is perhaps the most famous story in the history of creation.

3. Bobby Peru (Wild At Heart, 1990)

“Bobby Peru… just like the country”. One of the darkest roles on Dafoe’s CV, Bobby Peru is a villain in every sense of the word. Dafoe’s evil chuckle, combined with hideous prosthetic teeth, creates an unforgettable monster.

Creepy and coarse, Peru becomes involved with young lovers Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicolas Cage) in some criminal activity, only to become their worst nightmare. A character straight from the twisted mind of writer-director David Lynch, Bobby Peru is bad guy you really love to hate.

4. Agent Paul Smecker (The Boondock Saints, 1999)

Troy Duffy’s crime saga was an independent hit in the late-nineties, with a behind-the-scenes story almost as fascinating as the one on screen (those who are curious ought to check out 2003 documentary Overnight).

The film follows two brothers who become modern day vigilantes, pursued by Dafoe’s FBI Agent Smecker. A deep thinker who puts together the scene of the crime using classical music and a lot of theatrics, it’s another film where the Dafoe’s physicality is brought into play, particularly in the unforgettable ‘fire fight’ scene.

5. Max Schreck (Shadow of the Vampire, 2000)

Dafoe gives one of his strangest and most memorable performances in this offbeat account of the making of classic silent horror Nosferatu. He  was Oscar nominated for his portrayal of actor Max Schreck, the man who entered cinema history in 1922 with his animalistic depiction of the titular vampire.

However, the movie puts a twist on proceedings by suggesting that Schreck was himself a vampire, and through the course of the drama, he emerges as the sympathetic figure opposite monstrous director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich). It’s another sign of Dafoe’s formidable ability to get under the skin of bizarre individuals and invest them with notes of pathos.

6. Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin (Spider-Man, 2002)

Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man blockbuster foreshadowed the Marvel superhero dominance that was to take hold with 2008’s Iron Man.

In addition to Tobey Maguire’s triumphant debut as the wall-crawler, Spider-Man’s success also owed a great deal to Dafoe’s role as Norman Osborn, the power mad head of OsCorp who uses an experimental serum and becomes the deadly Green Goblin.

Dafoe’s performance is undeniably over the top, but it fits perfectly with Raimi’s colourful staging as he argues with his evil alter-ego in the mirror, and cackles as he attacks Times Square. Superheroes are often defined by their villains and there’s no denying that Dafoe made a memorable antagonist opposite Maguire’s Spider-Man. That surprisingly brutal showdown in the finale still makes us flinch.

7. Martin David (The Hunter, 2011)

The Hunter is a tense environmental thriller about a mercenary (Dafoe) who’s sent to hunt down a rare tiger for a corporation, only to become the prey himself. Dafoe is terrific in a film that explores the clash between the natural world and big business, one that also serves as a claustrophobic thriller that leaves you guessing until the end.

It’s often hailed as one of the actor’s best performances thanks to its complexity and intense nature. It’s also one of Dafoe’s favourites – at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, he personally elected for the film to be shown as he received a lifetime achievement award.

8. J.G. Jopling (The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014)

There’s something about Dafoe’s face that lends itself to villains. The actor has a tremendous gift for transforming himself into a monstrous figure, and that’s exactly what he achieves as Jopling, a violent assassin in Wes Anderson’s gloriously eccentric comedy.

It’s the third time the actor has entered the world of the idiosyncratic director, having already worked with him in both The Life Aquatic and The Fantastic Mr Fox. Here, Jopling causes carnage in his pursuit of suave hotel concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Gustave’s protegee, Zero (Tony Revolori), culminating in a surreal ski chase sequence that has to be seen to be believed.

9. Bobby (The Florida Project, 2017)

The Florida Project is director Sean Baker’s euphoric drama about a group of itinerant families living on the margins of society in the shadow of Disney World.

Ironically, for someone who’s carved out a reputation playing weirdos and unpleasant characters, Dafoe delivers a stunning performance as someone who radiates decency. He plays Bobby, the owner of the motel where many families are forced to carve out a meagre existence, and he becomes something of a father figure to young girl Moonee (sensational newcomer Brooklynn Prince).

Bobby navigates the practicalities of his job with a growing, tragic awareness of the child’s fragile social situation, resulting in a devastating climax, and another highly deserved Oscar nomination for Dafoe.

The Lighthouse reaches Cineworld cinemas on the 31st of January 2020. Tweet us your favourite Willem Dafoe performances @Cineworld.