‘Do you know how much I’ve sacrificed?’ – Norman Osbourne, Spider-Man (2002)
Good lord, something is deeply, deeply wrong. I am plagued by a pox taking the shape of one of our most prolific and enduring character actors: Willem Dafoe. Watching one of his films each Wednesday, on a Willem Wednesday, has become a habit which is hard to shake. ‘What Willem we watching?’ is a regular question in my household.
But what is it that makes the guy so captivating? Without one single role that we can point at to define his personality and style, Willem’s versatility, recognisability, and reliability seemingly defines Character Actor.
He has remained in high demand, working with Stone, Lynch, Minghella, Von Trier, Schrader, Scorsese, Raimi, Bigelow, John Waters, Spike Lee, and countless others over a cinematic career that began just as New Hollywood was fading.
I present you now with notes from the first four weeks of Willem Wednesdays, with further entries to follow weekly in a fuller form. Think of this less as a portrait and more as sketches from the Willem front lines.
WEEK 1: Wild at Heart
Name: Bobby Peru
With the return of Twin Peaks and David Lynch taking up much of the current cultural discourse, this ferocious performance from Dafoe as the ghoulish Bobby Peru is a perfect start point for our odyssey of Willem. And just as Lynch’s new season of Twin Peaks is an achievement that appears unlike any other American television show, Wild At Heart is truly one of the most unexpected movies to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes.
It plays as Bonnie and Clyde given the Lynch treatment, which means intensely theatrical sex and violence, and off-kilter performances that give the film an unsettling edge lacking in the imitators that would follow (here’s looking at you, Natural Born Killers).
To this end, Dafoe is incredible as Frank Booth 2.0 Bobby Peru, an unpredictable crook who coaxes Sailor (Nicolas Cage) into a robbery. His scene with Laura Dern in the motel room is a classic, mixing fear, desire, repulsion together until one cannot be sure what they feel. For a film which features Cage and Dern in the leads at their most loose and physical, Dafoe’s firecracker presence inbetween them is a great achievement.
Wild at Heart is hypnotic, occasionally frustrating, but plays very much like Lynch’s conception of what, as a child, he thought the cool kids were up to. Hence the Wizard of Oz motif which runs through the movie. It is seeped in the 50s birth of teenagehood, from costume to music to the formula of the plot. It remains one of Lynch’s more untethered films, a blast of extremism that is encapsulated by Bobby Peru himself.
WEEK 2: Mississippi Burning
Name: Agent Alan Ward
Profession: FBI Agent
Alan Parker is one of these mise-en-scene directors who comes up with the occasional great image but usually allows the scripts that he works with to tell the story rather than exploring his own personal voice. His debut film, Bugsy Malone, is such a bizarre and strangely postmodern film that the decidedly middlebrow works that occupy the rest of his career are disappointing.
Mississippi Burning is one such film. Recounting the 1964 FBI investigation into the murders of several civil rights activists by the KKK, it portrays a community wrecked by fear and hatred. Predictably for a film of its time, it filters the black experience through white eyes, with black characters slotting into predictable stereotypes: preacher, aggressor, innocent child.
The theme of ‘Mississippi Justice’ which runs through the film, whereby the characters learn that they can only bring these guys in by compromising their own morality, is a great idea which is not given real stakes by the script. Dafoe’s city boy and Hackman’s prodigal southerner are not defined in strong enough contrast, with little conflict between them. There is an enjoyable proceduralism to it, but this means that Dafoe is given the short shrift as a character. By depicting the arrest of every racist character at the end of the film, Mississippi Burning falls foul of ‘solving racism’, thereby giving the audience a catharsis which is unjustified. The wife of the head racist is even gifted to Gene Hackman’s FBI Agent.
This is a low-key WIllem performance, the kind I didn’t associate him with. It is solid, if not quite the match up for the ages with Gene Hackman that one hopes for.
WEEK 3: Speed 2: Cruise Control
Name: John Geiger
Good to get one of the worst films of all time out of the way early. Defoe really is the only things holding this together. Even Sandra Bullock’s intense charisma cannot survive the vaccum that is Jason Patrick, who seems to take charges levelled at Keanu Reeves as some sort of challenge. It is a film that has no reason to exist following the high concept perfection of the first installment.
Dafoe’s mulletted cyber-terrorist is deliciously enjoyable. It’s the kind of film where you start to wish the villain well, if only because the leads are so obnoxious. This is where Willem works well, chewing the scenery and cackling with glee, even as he is being blown to pieces.
For masochists and Willem completists only.
WEEK 4: Body of Evidence
Name: Frank Dulaney
I was truly wrong to presume Speed 2 to be the nadir of the Dafoe oeuvre. With hindsight, of course it was the Madonna co-lead Erotic Thriller.
Willem plays a lawyer tasked with defending a femme fatale client accused of murdering her lover during coitus. Being Sex Book-era Madonna, she seduces our boy and the mind games begin.
The thing with Body of Evidence is for the first ten minutes you think it might be an interesting psychosexual noir thriller, the kind European directors pumping out in early 90s Hollywood. Then the characters start talking. And fucking. There is none of the drawn out tension of a Basic Instinct or Single White Female. This is proto-50 Shades shit.
And the candlewax?
One sex scene, taking place in a parking garage, proudly without any body doubling, almost needs to be seen to be believed. That isn’t a recommendation, even for lovers of garbage this one stinks too much to swallow. Perhaps its biggest crime is that alongside Dafoe, it wastes Joe Mantegna and a very early Julianne Moore.
For nobody, ever.
To encounter back-to-back entries of such low quality, one must wonder if the career of Willem is as full of gems as one hoped. If many more films as poor as these show up, Willem Wednesdays may be over before they have truly begun.
Next Willem Wednesday: One of his best performances, a beloved cameo, a biopic, and the film seemingly every fuckboy at university told me to watch…