How did my life reach this point? Growing up, I never expected to be trapped in a time loop battling against the good, bad and ugly of Willem Dafoe’s career and always asking the same question: What Willem We Watching?
Below, notes from weeks 5-8 of Willem Wednesday. I suppose one can never predict their destiny.
WEEK 5:The Boondock Saints
Name: Paul Smecker
Profession: FBI Agent
I didn’t make it to The Boondock Saints until 2017. This is significant. Park the car in Harvard yard jokes aside, this film has a large cult reputation. Its fans believe it to be the greatest film ever made. Let us be clear: this is far from it.
Employing the Tarantinoian non-linear structure of so many late 90s crime films, in Boondock Saints various crime scenes are examined by Dafoe’s Will Graham-esque supercop, revealing the actions of two Boston brothers on a righteous path of destruction through the city’s underworld.
Hackily directed by Troy Duffy, The Boondock Saints (there’s something so arrogant about the definitive article there) espouses a perverted morality of blind justice from the street, a sort of anarchistic idea of violently holding our institutions to account that seems childish following the failures of, say, the Occupy movement to build on something like this in practice. When delivered through such careless, libertarian posturing the whole film seems like a pose. It reminds of the half baked social commentary in The Dark Knight Rises, though at least Nolan’s film was aiming for the sweep of Dr Zhivago and missing, where Boondock Saints can barely work out what it is trying to take aim at, much less to expose the systems behind it. Its the same masculine energy that defenders of Sons of Anarchy like to cite, but why do these pieces promote rather than investigate?
Though Dafoe is the best thing about the film, his energy is at such a high level that it is incongruous with the tone of the film. He vaccums the air around him. The Irish jig is magnificent, and its at least something to grasp onto, but without a director to restrain him the performance really is all over the place.
The most interesting thing about the film is that Willem plays an openly gay man whose sexuality does not have any bearing on his character. Progressive, for 1999. Or was it just to set up his drag disguise later on? That moment has a flavour of De Palma to it, or surely presupposes that Joker moment from The Dark Knight. Maybe we have found Christopher Nolan’s secret trail of influence.
We are really not doing well here. It is beginning to look like WIllem is more ‘Trash’ than ‘Cash’, if you catch my drift. I’m hoping to pick a winner next week
Week 6: Cry-Baby
Name: Hateful Guard
Profession: Prison Guard
Although it is disappointing that Willem himself only appears in one scene, this Johnny Depp vehicle is a complete joy that utilises the John Waters style in an accessible, unique way. It’s the follow up to Waters’ biggest hit, Hairspray, and it feels like studio and filmmaker are riding the wave of that success todeliver another affectionate celebration of the 50s and especially teen oriented movies. Hence the formidability of the music choices and set pieces, the recurring use of The Jive Bombers’ ‘Bad Boy’ being one standout track.
In the wake of Tim Burton’s mainstream success Hollywood did its best to capitalise on the alternate reality of colourful kitch in which he trades. As one of Burton’s strongest influences, Waters, the proud Trahsman, uses the commercial opportunity to straighten out somewhat but still provide enough distinctive touches, like casting middle aged people as teenagers (equally a nod to Hollywood’s proclivity to earnestly cast way out of their age range).
There’s an inclusiveness, a celebration of those on the fringes, the unconventional, the outsider, the ugly, the human, that crosses over from the more extreme of Water’s work and is equally tangible here.
Willem’s cameo is solid as ‘Hateful Guard’. It is a real blink-and-miss-it appearance whering he tells the inmates of a prison to pray to Roy Cohn and Richard Nixon. Placed in opposition to Johnny Depp’’s greaser, he represents the establishment in all its straightjacketed glory. ‘Its beddy-bye time!’
Week 7: Light Sleeper
Name: John LeTour
Profession: Drug Dealer
If Paul Schrader is the most overlooked of the New Hollywood fimmakers, then Light Sleeper is the film that defines his cinematic voice and can be used to claim his authorship over Taxi Driver.
Willem plays a New York drug dealer who considers quitting the business. We watch him cross the city stlked by a relentless, looming score by The Cult’s Michael Been. Schrader plays for realism, depicting the grit of a pre-Guliani New York. The city, and Dafoe, are at breaking point. Certainly, it retreads the themes of Taxi Driver, but Schrader’s precise direction (shades of Bresson and Ozu) turns it into an unforgettable mood piece.
Dafoe brings a theatricality which at times seems unsuitable for the muted aesthetic, as though he is holding himself back from going full Willem. This makes the performance a strange mirror of Boondock Saints, in which he ran rampant without a director. The guarded quality Dafoe brings to the role is in keeping the closeted, arguably phobic subtext. It adds to a fascinating performance of tension and sadness. When the camera sits on his face at the back of a cab (Master of None, anyone?), his endlessly cinematic features bring depth that is so often hinted at in Dafoe’s roles but is rarely fully explored. Is this Dafoe’s best performance or just the best use of him as a figure? It is certainly a woozily atmospheric film which lingers like a heroin comedown.
Week 8: Pasolini
Name: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Profession: Film Director
Abel Ferrara is a difficult filmmaker to love. With an auteurist reputation entirely hinging on the quite dated King of New York and Bad Lieutennant (Herzog’s take is the far greater achievement), he depicts cruel, unlikable men in an effort to dig into the western psyche. Pasolini is no different, drawing parallels between the artist and the criminal. Dafoe is enigmatic, unreliant on the ticks which define his earlier performances. He is here the very opposite of his turn in Boondock Saints, a signal of a stronger director, or more faith in the material. Pasolini’s homosexuality is presented as a link to the underworld, one which sadly leads to his story being cut short. This results in an unsatisfying narrative but one which explores the psychology of its subject with unflinching interest.
The roughshod approach of Ferrara suits digital filmmaking, he shoots Italy with verve making the most of its particular colour and shadow. Indeed, the debt of Italian cinema is all over this, which in its ornate compositions and strong use of mid-shots reminds of the work of Sorrentino and Guadagnino. They themselves were influenced by Pasolini, whose work I am unfortunately unfamiliar with beyond Salo, a sensational cult classic which every bit lives up to its ghastly reputation. Pasolini is obviously in thrall to 81/2 in its lucid flashback structure – an easy association to make what with its shared subject matter of the film director.
The recurring motif of the Pasolini facepalm is curious. Its an impressively restrained film but one that does little to demythologise its subject or the act of artistic creation.
Eight movies in, WIllem is snapping into clearer focus. With three of four very different performances here exploring homosexuality in some form, Willem is unafraid to explore masculinity and his own image against it. This makes me excited to see what else he has to offer in the 90 odd roles we have left to look at.
Next Wednesday: A Herzog experiment, an unnecessary sequel, a wasted opportunity, and a surprise masterpiece.