I’ve always been a fan of Willem Dafoe movies, largely because there’s no role or circumstance that the talented actor won’t throw himself into for the sake of his craft. He’s gained recognition and critical acclaim for performances in Born on the Fourth of July, Mississippi Burning, Platoon, and To Live and Die in L.A., although none of these will be found on the following list. Instead, I want to focus on some of the more bizarre or offbeat Willem Dafoe roles, specially those where he gets to chew the scenery, stir up controversy, or act downright demented. After all, the title of this site is Odd Films.
- He from Antichrist (2009) – While Danish director Lars von Trier’s wife wasn’t sure a noted actor like Dafoe would accept a role where he’s getting naked and suffering through genital torture, the veteran performer jumped at the chance to explore the darker side of the human psyche. As a therapist who’s recently lost his young son, He and his wife head to a remote cabin for some psychotherapy. Once there, the proposed treatment goes off the rails thanks to talking foxes, rough sex, and a wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who’s mad with guilt. While several people fainted during the film’s debut at Cannes, it’s just one in a long string of bizarre Willem Dafoe movies.
- Special Agent Paul Smecker from The Boondock Saints (1999) – When a pair of Irish-American brothers in Boston (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) receive a message from God, they decide to rid the city of its criminal element. This requires guns, a little inside help, and lots and lots of rope. As the body count rises, they’re tracked by FBI Special Agent Paul Smecker, a homosexual genius who can determine the events at a crime scene by simply standing around and listening to music. He also likes to refer to his sexual partners as “fags,” and there’s no telling when he’ll engage in a little Riverdancing. Dafoe gets to chew the scenery in this Troy Duffy production, but it blends perfectly with the film’s over-the-top comic book tone.
- Max Schreck from Shadow of the Vampire (2000) – One of the most well-acted Willem Dafoe movies, Shadow of the Vampire stars our subject as Max Schreck, a supposed actor who agrees to play a vampire named Count Orlok in director F.W. Murnau’s (John Malkovich) latest film. But Schreck seems oddly dedicated to his part, and slowly members of the cast and crew begin to either fall ill or disappear. Dafoe is at his best in this E. Elias Merhige movie, never playing his role for laughs and imbuing Schreck with a darkly sad demeanor that hides a horrific secret. Udo Kier and Cary Elwes co-star, which is notable considering that both appeared in vampire movies prior to this production.
- Klaus Daimler from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Wes Anderson’s fourth film follows oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) as he heads out onto the high seas to get a little payback on the “Jaguar shark” that ate his partner. Dafoe co-stars as Klaus Daimler, the toboggan-wearing crewman who looks upon Zissou as a surrogate father. Frankly, Klaus is one of the more normal characters in the film, but Wes Anderson still manages to turn out a thoroughly quirky piece of art.
- Bobby Peru from Wild at Heart (1990) – After being released from prison, Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) takes off with true love Lula Pace Fortune (Lara Dern), much to the displeasure of Lula’s controlling and murderous mom, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd). Marietta convinces her male admirers–a gangster (J.E. Freeman) and a private eye (Harry Dean Stanton)–to find the couple, leading to a bizarre series of encounters worthy of a David Lynch movie. In the town of Big Tuna, Texas, the pair run into Bobby Peru, a dentally challenged scumbag who plans to rob the local feed store. When he’s not referring to Sailor as “Mr. Big-Round-Balls” or attempting to rape Lula, Bobby demonstrates the worst way possible to wield a shotgun or conduct a stick-up. One of the more bizarre Willem Dafoe roles.
- Armando Barillo from Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) – The third film in director Robert Rodriguez’s “Mariachi Trilogy,” Once Upon a Time in Mexico stars Antonio Banderas as a wandering musician looking for revenge somewhere south of Texas. Johnny Depp is a riot as a murderous CIA agent, and other co-stars include Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, and Cheech Marin. Dafoe plays Armando Barillo, a sadistic drug lord out to kill the President of Mexico and seize control of the country. While it’s a small role, Dafoe gets to show off the sadistic side that he excels at.
- Emit Flesti from Faraway, So Close! (1993) – The sequel to the popular German film Wings of Desire, this movie follows a pair of angels (Otto Sander and Nastassja Kinski) as they observe and interact with mankind. Bruno Ganz reprises his role from the first film (which inspired the Nicolas Cage remake, City of Angels), and Peter Falk, Lou Reed, and Mikhail Gorbachev all turn up to play themselves. For his part, Dafoe plays a mysterious figure named Emit Flesti who loans angels money to open pizza parlors, tempts them into drinking alcohol, and eventually reveals himself to be far more than an ordinary mortal.
- Jesus Christ from The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – Willem Dafoe plays Jesus Christ in this controversial film from director Martin Scorsese. While he still takes care of his worldly business in a manner befitting the son of God, Jesus is constantly tempted by visions of a happy life in the arms of former prostitute Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). This didn’t sit well with the more small-minded Christian viewers, and bans and protests occurred around the globe. Violence even erupted in some cases, showing that these people missed the whole point of Jesus’s teachings in the first place.
- Norman Osborn from Spider-Man (2002) – When mild-mannered Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gets bitten by a radioactive spider, he soon finds himself possessing all kinds of cool superpowers. Between romancing the tramp next door (Kirsten Dunst) and fighting “Macho Man” Randy Savage, things are starting to look up for the former geek. But then lovable old Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) gets gunned down, and the father of best pal Harry Osborn (James Franco) becomes a raving supervillain after a lab experiment goes awry. As the Green Goblin, Dafoe gets plenty of opportunities to scowl, and the scenes where he talks to himself in the mirror are among the best.
- Salamo Arouch from Triumph of the Spirit (1989) – Most actors worth their salt will eventually pop up in a movie about the Holocaust, and Willem Dafoe is no exception. He starred in this somewhat true story of Salamo Arouch, a Greek Jew confined to the Auschwitz death camp and forced to box against other prisoners for the entertainment of his Nazi captors. Losing meant the gas chamber, while winners would be given extra food and lighter work. With only one clear way to save the lives of relatives and the woman he loves (all fellow prisoners), Salamo resolves to beat everyone placed in front of him. The first motion picture to be shot on location at Auschwitz.
If you’re a fan of brave performances, be sure to see the above Willem Dafoe movies. For that matter, you can’t wrong with his complete career catalogue, so go ahead and visit an online rental service such as GreenCine or Netflix to watch them all.