Tag Archives: Willem Dafoe

Paul Schrader’s Affliction

Paul Schrader’s Affliction is a terrifying, tragic and too-real examination of how one series of events, dating back to childhood abuse, can spark the kind of self destructive downward spiral that no well adjusted person could ever thing themselves capable of. At the outset Nick Nolte’s Wade Whitehouse does indeed seem, perhaps mostly in his own eyes, to be a fairly well adjusted person. He’s an auxiliary lawman in a small New Hampshire community with a daughter, ex wife and set of problems that could be chalked up as ‘everyday variety.’ But just underneath that is a simmering layer of trauma and violence that inevitably will be unleashed, given the right set of catalytic incidents. Wade has a volcanically abusive father (James Coburn) who drinks like there’s no tomorrow and terrorized his family no end for years. Wade’s brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) distanced himself from the whole implosive saga years ago but when their mother passes away and the dynamics of their family as well as that of the town begins to shift, forces align against all of them.

This is a sad, heavy, fucked up, heinously bleak and relentlessly downbeat piece of storytelling, no fooling around. Wade’s trajectory is just painful to watch, from hazy flashbacks to childhood horrors inflicted by the old man to slow, steady signs of mental illness, delusional breakdowns and unstable behaviours manifesting gradually like an incoming blizzard. His relationship with his father is a poisoned minefield, his brother stays at arm’s length while his ex wife and daughter are resentful of him, perhaps scared or both. He has one solace in the girl he’s seeing (Sissy Spacek) but once she’s drawn into the whirlwind that is his life she too frays around the edges and is tainted by the violence, bad luck and pain surrounding it all. If this sounds like anything but a pleasant experience, it totally is and you’ll leave the room feeling like you’ve been slapped in the face repeatedly. But it’s an important, well crafted, intelligent, vital film that explores in uncommon empathy and understanding how a cycle of abuse, alcoholism, dereliction of compassionate behaviour and violence can ripple throughout generations like a sentient force all its own.

Nolte is sublime in this role, he’s an actor who always seems on the edge of an explosive outburst, always restless or shifting around, possessive of a deeply uneasy tone of voice and a guarded gaze. He rocks this role scarily well and it could be the performance of his career. Coburn is a tower of terror as the domineering patriarch, an imposing force in flashbacks now reduced to a frail, brittle and sour parody of himself in old age, constantly swilling booze, pissing archaic rhetoric like a toxic fountain and continuously displaying what the very worst traits of the male image look like. Dafoe is quietly powerful, present briefly in person and then in spirit with haunting narration, the black sheep of this clan in the best way possible. Spacek is so sad as the poor girl dragged into all this as it’s achingly clear she has deep feelings for Wade which she must abandon as soon as it becomes clear the kind of black hole he’s headed for. The cast is rounded out nicely with folks like Chris Heyerdahl, Brigid Tierney, Jim True-Frost, Mary Beth Hurt, Wayne Robson, Joanna Noyes and the excellent Holmes Osborne who we recall as Donnie Darko’s dad. This is a grim tale, as rough and cold as the inland terrain these people make their home, and for the family here there’s no way out of the cold, save for perhaps Dafoe’s character. It’s essential work though, a film that doesn’t doesn’t shy away from taboos that we ignore and banish out there with the howling wind, but rises up to meet and bear witness to such atrocities so that we may better recognize them in our own realm, and whittle away at the block of empathy and compassion in the face of such horror. A stone cold masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Disney’s Togo

Man, Willem Dafoe is really on a roll this year, not to mention the last two decades in general. No other actor out there I can think of has balanced a career between appearing in edgy, fucked up arthouse and experimental stuff and then more accessible, Hollywood and conventional fare too with as much energy, enthusiasm and variety. The only thing he hasn’t done is made the jump to television, but everyone has their reasons. With Disney’s Togo he proves for the third time this year (see Motherless Brooklyn and The Lighthouse) what a commanding, distinct presence he has in either lead or supporting roles. Here he plays Leonhard Seppela, a real life Norwegian sled dog breeder whose unshakeable bond with his lead dog Togo is the stuff of legend and countless grabs for the Kleenex box throughout the film.

Togo was the runt of the litter, as we learn through decade ago flashbacks between the beginning of their friendship and a furious race through the Alaskan wilderness to bring medicine back for children dying of an illness outbreak. If this story sounds familiar it’s because it is: Another dog named Balto was slapped with most of the credit through happenstance it seems, but this film definitely makes it apparent that Togo was the uncanny and determined hero who turned the tide amongst one of the fiercest storms in Alaskan history.

Dafoe is so versatile he can play the freakiest, most otherworldly villains or the most affable and down to earth regular dudes. He’s an initial pragmatist here whose borderline callous way of training dogs is upended by Togo’s resilience and spirit that burns like a star’s reflection in the Alaskan ice. These two beings were made for each other and in the last haul of their respective lives (Leonhard looks to be in his late sixties and Togo is over twelve) they pull off a miraculous journey of courage, defiance and heartwarming friendship. It isn’t without its dangers or peril though, there’s a sequence where they have to navigate an inlet Sound coated in ice violently shattering all around them that is so harrowing to watch you won’t breathe until the outcome. That’s the power of these animal stories though and I suppose you have to be someone who loves all these creatures or a ‘dog person’ to be affected by it, but really at its core it’s about friendship no matter the species, not giving up on one another at any stage of either party’s life and how that can carry you onward. Both Dafoe and every dog in his team sell that and make this one of the best films of the year. A special mention to Mark Isham’s beautiful score and the use of emotionally galvanizing song ‘On The Nature Of Daylight’ by Max Richter in the third act, last heard in Scorsese’s Shutter Island at an equally penultimate point in the narrative. This one alone is worth the price of Disney+.

-Nate Hill

Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn

It’s always cool for two of my top ten films of the year to find their way to me inside a week. A few days ago it was The Lighthouse and yesterday it was Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, a brilliant, sprawling noir epic that sees this accomplished artist behind the camera for only the second time in his career and in front of it for the first time since I can remember… I think the last thing I saw him in was that fourth Bourne film that didn’t even have Jason Bourne in it. He roars back into action commendably here as both writer and director in a passioned period piece that has a lot to say and one of those old school two plus hour runtimes to say it in as well as the kind of jaw dropping, star studded ensemble casts they just don’t bother to assemble much anymore.

In adapting Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Norton rewinds a 90’s setting back into the 50’s and comes up a winner playing Lionel Essrog, a private detective whose friend, mentor and father figure Frank (Bruce Willis lingers in a cameo you wish was more) is murdered by shady thugs whilst investigating the kind of lead that can only end in bloodshed. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome in an era where medication, compassions and science are sorely lacking and has thus sadly earned the moniker ‘freak show’ by his peers. That doesn’t stop him from using gut intuition to continue Frank’s work, leading him down the obligatory NYC noir rabbit hole of Harlem jazz clubs, red herrings, betrayals, corrupt government officials and bursts of sudden violence meant as warning but there to juice up the intrigue. It’s a fairly serpentine web of lies and decades old secrets involving many characters brought to life by one hell of a cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw scores soulful points as an activist whose involvement runs far deeper than even she knows. Alec Baldwin gives a terrifying turn as an impossibly evil, truly bigoted mega city planner whose agenda to bulldoze poorer communities shows little remorse in character and allows the seasoned actor to provide what might be the best villain portrayal of the year. I didn’t think I’d be raving about Willem Dafoe two times in one week (he crushed his role in The Lighthouse) but the guy is on fuckin fire, bringing cantankerous warmth to a vaguer role I won’t spoil. Also in the mix are Michael Kenneth Williams as a mercurial trumpet player, Bobby Cannavle, Dallas Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones, Robert Wisdom, Josh Pais, Peter Gray Lewis and Leslie Mann.

Considering that Norton’s director debut was a Ben Stiller romcom, its fairly heavy lifting to pivot over towards a two and a half hour period piece adapted from a revered novel but he pulls it off and then some. He directs the actors with snap and ease so we get organic, underplayed yet lasting impressions from each performance including his own, a very tricky role that never comes across as a gimmick. His affliction is never conveniently absent when the scene requires it and he makes sure to find the frustration, humour and lived-in aspects of Lionel’s personality. Baldwin’s character serves to represent the callous nature of real estate development conglomerates these days and the tendency to gloss over less fortunate folk like invisible downtrodden, or downright see them as lesser people. Norton, as both actor and director, gently explores this world with a compassion for areas in which some have more than less and focuses on themes until we get to see a powerful morality play unfold within the already tantalizing central mystery. This film sort of came out of nowhere (I don’t remember any marketing outside like a month before release?!) and isn’t making huge waves yet but it’s a powerful, funny, touching, detailed, beautifully acted and directed piece, one of the best thus far of the year.

-Nate Hill

Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse

I don’t really have a clever lead-in line to Roger Egger’s The Lighthouse for this review, partly because I’m still not sure just what the fuck I watched and partly because I’m processing the giddy traumas this thing inflicts on a viewer. One thing I’m sure of is the sheer elemental wonder of this film, it’s an intimate experience of immense power, a loving ode to black and white films overall, a pulverizing experience in off the wall horror, a terrific dose of briny black comedy, a dual character study for the ages, a gooey Lovecraft homage and one of the most hysterically intense viewing experiences of the year and perhaps ever.

From the moment Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake and Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow set foot on the rock that is to be their home for months, there is an oppressive maritime aura like no other, made so by several key factors. The haunting black and white photography by Jarin Blaschke is at once chilly, gorgeous and all encompassing, the creaky original score by Mark Korven has retro sensibilities and practically leaks dread off the screen and Eggers chooses to frame his story in the 1.19:1 aspect ratio used by early B&W filmmakers like F.W. Murnau. These aspects combined craft one unforgettable, deeply disquieting package, and I haven’t even raved about the performances yet. Dafoe and Pattinson give the kind of towering, monumental, thunderous turns that make you scared for them and want to yell cut before they’re lost to the maelstrom of their own mania. Dafoe is a creepy, crusty, brittle old salt who bellows, farts, berates and abuses Pattinson’s Winslow, a greenhorn who quickly loses his keen edge to the drink and the intangible, perhaps supernatural forces surrounding them. It’s a macabre treat watching these two poor sods race each other headlong towards madness helped by copious amounts of rum, the gnawing reality of isolation and the ever present wailing of seagulls which, as Dafoe makes clear, are bad luck to kill.

Word of warning with this one though: this is very much a bizarre, knowingly fucked up arthouse film and worlds apart from Egger’s hailed previous effort ‘The Witch,’ which for all its insanity actually had a coherent and decipherable story. With The Lighthouse he strives more for abstract, surreal and often impenetrable imagery and has no interest in providing concrete reasons or resolution for what’s seen, heard and felt. I myself prefer this style much more than conventional storytelling but it’s not for everyone and for better or worse there will be no viewer, however thick-skinned, left undisturbed. In any case this is one unique and impressive piece of work; Dafoe and Pattinson howl their way through impossibly long and intricate monologues (cue the original script and acting Oscars), the wind shrieks through the gorgeously designed set, a beautiful but terrifying mermaid (Valeriia Karamen) screams like a banshee out on the barnacle stained rocks and the ever present beam of the lighthouse (sometimes seeming eerily similar to the projector beam within the cinema itself) pierces the New England fog and sees all. A masterpiece and one of the very best films of the year thus far.

-Nate Hill

Off Limits aka Saigon

What do you think of when the Viet Nam war comes up in conversation? Platoon? Apocalypse Now? Born On The 4th Of July? All great films, but one I like to call attention to is Off Limits, a sweaty, disturbing murder mystery set in the heat of Saigon during the height of the war. Someone is brutally murdering prostitutes in the brothels, raising enough of a stir that Army cops Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines are called in to investigate all fronts. Because this is war and anything close to an organized procedural is hopeless, there’s a creepy, lawless feel to their work as they probe American GI’s, shady local characters and even US military honchos. This is an unpleasant, royally fucked up film that isn’t easy to sit through or warm up to, but it’s brilliantly made and the sheer level of feverish intensity kept up by everyone involved has to be commended. Dafoe is reserved but lethal when necessary while Hines brings the humour as a guy who creates a flippant smokescreen to hide just how sharp he really is. Fred Ward plays their commanding officer of sorts terrifically but it’s Scott Glenn who lays down one absolute WTF of a performance as a psychopathic American colonel with some disgusting extracurricular habits, one hell of a nasty attitude and probably the single funniest and most unnerving death scene I’ve ever seen. Keep a lookout for Richard Brooks, David Alan Grier and Keith David in solid turns as GI’s who are immediately suspects because in a climate this volatile, everyone is. A fantastic film that fires on all cylinders, is exceptionally well made and very overlooked but be warned: you’ll want to take five or six showers after those credits roll.

-Nate Hill

Roger Donaldson’s White Sands

Somewhere out there in the gypsum dunes of New Mexico there’s White Sands, a long lost, slightly unfinished yet captivating neo-noir about small town law enforcement, big time gun runners and everyone else who gets caught up in between. Willem Dafoe is Ray, a bored rural sheriff who sees a way out of the dusty hum drum when an apparent smuggler turns up dead on his watch out there in the national park, prompting him to steal the guy’s identity and dive headlong into the illicit arms business with no real crash course or idea of what he’s doing. A risky move that propels the film down an exciting, sexy, ambient journey of untrustworthy alliances, atmospheric shootouts and a dangerously charming Mickey Rourke as Lennox, the kind of reptilian criminal who’s so good at seducing you into the lifestyle that you don’t realize you’re in the snake pit until it’s almost too late. Dafoe and Rourke have shared the screen aplenty before and while my favourite team up has to be their cartel duo in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time In Mexico, this film certainly takes second place honours. They just work so well on camera together, a shaky bromance built on Ray’s deception and Lennox’s unpredictable penchant for violence that proves electric as the narrative weaves around them. The always phenomenal Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays an underworld connection who Ray unwisely gets steamy with in probably one of the hottest sex scenes of the 90’s and a complete false advertisement for the success rate of getting it on in the shower. Samuel L. Jackson has a fantastic early career villain role as the kind of corrupt FBI agent in whom it’s very unwise to place trust, and watch for others including the great Maura Tierney, M. Emmett Walsh, James Rebhorn, Beth Grant, Miguel Sandoval, Jack Kehler, Mimi Rogers and a sneaky unbilled double cameo from Fred Dalton Thompson and the inimitable John P. Ryan as slick arms dealers. The setting of White Sands park plays such a role in atmosphere here; the ghostly sight of white sand dunes brings about the thought that something is out of place, rare in nature and the same can be said for Dafoe’s affable sheriff thrown into a mixing pot of big city psychos and genuine menace, a fish out of water shtick that pulls you in the more accustomed to this netherworld the man gets. How about that knockout original score from Patrick O’Hearn too, who only composed for a handful of things since, it’s a hazy, melodic set that suggests both the beauty and danger lurking out there in the Sands, especially in the simmering climax where several characters meet poetically grisly fates. I do have a few minor issues with this film, it could have been at least fifteen minutes longer and rounded out the epilogue with Dafoe’s arc clearer, it almost feels like there’s a missing reel or some editing glitch that marred the final product just a tad, but it doesn’t hurt the film too much overall. This is a lost classic for me, a gorgeously specific film noir with some of my favourite actors giving some of their most fun, playful work, the aforementioned score and some cinematography that won’t quit. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Disney’s John Carter Of Mars

If Disney had kept the much more alluring title ‘John Carter Of Mars’ instead of hacking off the last bit and just keeping the dude’s name, I feel like Andrew Stanton’s John Carter would have had a better chance in marketing and taken flight, because it’s not even near as bad a film as people would have you believe. In fact, it’s a gorgeous, beautifully told, elaborate retro science fiction dream and a flat out great film. I suppose it’s kind of like Waterworld, where a film tanks so badly that people start to confuse bad numbers with bad quality and a whole negative stigma is whipped up around it. Speaking of Waterworld, another great film, John Carter bears similarities in production design and visual atmosphere, albeit set on Mars for most of the duration. Based on a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs believed to be some of the earliest works of literary SciFi, Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter, an ex Civil War badass who finds himself whisked away to Mars through a dimensional cave portal out in the desert, propelled on an adventure with warring clans, giant alien yeti beasts, a princess (Lynn Collins), humanoid extraterrestrials led by a green Willem Dafoe, an adorable little dog/toad/road-runner animal and more. This is one of those old school epics that doesn’t just hire a few leads and a gaggle of supporting players but turns a whole casting agency upside down, shakes it and signs any actors that fall out, and as a result we get a jaw dropping lineup that includes Samantha Morton, Polly Walker, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Jon Favreau, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Mark Strong, Don Stark, Bryan Cranston as a crusty cavalry general and Dominic West in full Shakespeare mode as an evil Martian prince. Oh, Ross from Friends is apparently in there somewhere too but I’ve never been able to spot him, keep your eyes peeled though. The plot at base level is a fish out of water story as John adjusts to the planet (seeing him mess around with the gravitational field is so much fun), bonds with Dafoe and his tribe of Tharks, takes on giant furry Pokémon things in an intergalactic gladiator arena and casts his gaze starward, wondering if he’ll ever see his blue planet again. A few convoluted subplots get in the way including Mark Strong’s weird metaphysical warlock priest dude, but for the most part this a propulsive, rollicking, operatic space adventure with special effects that won’t quit and a real sense of wonder. Why this flopped so bad is anyone’s guess and it’s a shame because when this happens people tend to focus more on the event of its release and that perceived failure more than the film itself, and the legacy gets clouded. Forget the losses a studio with billions in couch change ‘suffered,’ forget any bad press or skewed marketing and just enjoy the film on its own, because it’s one for the ages.

-Nate Hill