best film:  Counting even the small roles – a bite size spot in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (technically Willem Dafoe’s debut), a two minute performance in The Aviator, and a very minor role in Asteroid City (2023), Willem Dafoe is in a whopping eleven (11) must-see or masterpiece level films. Sifting through it all – it does feel like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is his best film. This is still not a substantial role for Dafoe (he plays a villain – bad guy muscle – the Jopling character) – but he is memorable at least – which is more than some of the others even if his contribution here is not as weighty as in films like Platoon, Wild at Heat or Antichrist.


best performance:  After over one-hundred (100) film credits, nearly thirty (30) archiveable films, and nearly forty (40) years working, the performance of Willem Dafoe’s career came along at age sixty-four (64) in the form of The Lighthouse (2019) with burgeoning talent Robert Eggers at the helm. The depth here is a strength too – Dafoe does quality work in Shadow of a Vampire (not on his top five below) and one of his many career highlights includes his good angel on Charlie Sheen’s character’s shoulder (opposite the equally splendid Tom Berenger as the bad angel) in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam film Platoon (1986). Dafoe has pages and pages of dialogue and dialectics in The Last Temptation of Christ, Light Sleeper is a rare opportunity to see him flourish in a solo lead performance, and he chews up every scene he is in opposite Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990).


The Lighthouse is a major feather in the cap for Willem Dafoe. He captures both the look and language Robert Eggers is after. Dafoe has a fantastic soliloquy in the film. The 1.19 : 1 box like aspect ration lends itself to silent film expressionism – it sort of creates a vice like frame size – perfectly fitting for this confining cabin fever nature of this world. It lends itself to the forthcoming decent into madness (The Shining has to be brought up in comparison).


stylistic innovations/traits:  Willem Dafoe is child of the Midwest (Wisconsin born in 1955) with thirty-six (36) films in the archives and counting. This is a staggering fourteen (14) more films in the archives than he had just five years ago with the last update of this page in 2017. The late career renaissance would be more newsworthy if Dafoe has ever really had a slow or down period during his impressive career. Dafoe can disappear into a character (he goes from Christ to Bobby Peru to Max Schreck). He may be best known though for simply working with great auteurs (the collection of names and collaborations below is Tilda Swinton like). Dafoe, like Swinton, is a tremendous risk taker – not only working with these unabashed artists – but being in some very controversial films (from Last Temptation to his work with Lars von Trier) with very controversial directors (add David Lynch and Oliver Stone to Lars von Trier). Dafoe works often – he has well over 100 film credits now – but he is not Keith David, Martin Sheen or David Carradine with hundreds and hundreds of credits who seem to just occasionally run into an archiveable film. The thirty-six (36) archiveable film number is just south of Ward Bond – but Bond never had the impact Dafoe has had. Dafoe’s number is higher than either Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, but the same reverse argument (in terms of the Ward Bond discussion) here as Dafoe is certainly more part of the background than either of those two greats.


It is over an hour into David Lynch’s Wild at Heart before Dafoe shows up as the unforgettable Bobby Peru. This film and character are a rare blend of the comedic and the horrific. And Lynch accentuates the horrific in some extreme closeups of Dafoe.


directors worked with:  Dafoe is absolutely loaded here – Paul Schrader (4),Wes Anderson (4), Oliver Stone (2), Martin Scorsese (2), Lars von Trier (2), Robert Eggers (2), Michael Cimino (1), William Friedkin (1), David Lynch (1), Anthony Minghella (1), David Cronenberg (1), Spike Lee (1), Guillermo del Toro (1)


Dafoe as Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone’s Platoon  – a breakthrough film and performance


top five performances:

  1. The Lighthouse
  2. Wild at Heart
  3. Platoon
  4. Light Sleeper
  5. The Last Temptation of Christ


archiveable films:

1980- Heaven’s Gate
1983- The Hunger
1985- To Live and Die in L.A.
1986- Platoon
1988- Mississippi Burning
1988- The Last Temptation of Christ
1989- Born on the Fourth of July
1990- Wild at Heart
1992- Light Sleeper
1994- Clear and Present Danger
1996- The English Patient
1997- Affliction
1999- Existenz
2000- American Psycho
2000- Shadow of a Vampire
2002- Auto Focus
2004- Spider Man 2
2004- The Aviator
2004- The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
2006- Inside Man
2009- Antichrist
2013- Nymphomaniac
2013- Out of the Furnace
2014- A Most Wanted Man
2014- John Wick
2014- The Grand Budapest Hotel
2017- Murder on the Orient Express
2017- The Florida Project
2019- Motherless Brooklyn
2019- The Lighthouse
2021- Spider-Man: No Way Home
2021- The Card Counter
2021- The French Dispatch
2021- Nightmare Alley
2022- The Northman
2023- Asteroid City