Five Favorite Films Starring Willem Dafoe

One of my favorite actors, Willem Dafoe, is showing up in some great movies this year. You can see him in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II. He has worked with some of my very favorite directors and has the most unique and iconic face. Nobody looks quite like him and you wouldn’t mistake any actor for him, because nobody looks like Willem Dafoe, except for Willem Dafoe. What makes him such a remarkable actor and why does he get to work with the best directors? 

Personally, I do think that his face is the key here. It’s like he doesn’t even need to act. His face is the story. He can be “effortlessly” scary and provide a character with backstory, because he looks like he’s seen and done everything. The natural scariness of his face is why he played so many villains throughout his career. He’s mostly known as a character actor, by the general moviegoing public, however as we’ll see he’s a fantastic leading man as well.

His career was launched with Oliver Stone’s Platoon, where he plays the terrifying Sergeant Elias and which got him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Ever since then he’s been in movies like The English Patient, The Boondock Saints, American Psycho, Shadow of the Vampire, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spiderman and Daybreakers. I can’t say that I’ve seen all of his films, but I’ll just mention five that really stick out for me and that I feel more people should check out.

5. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Martin Scorsese)
last temptation of christ
A very misunderstood film. Lots of Christians condemn this one as blasphemous without even having seen it, but it’s actually one of the best Jesus films out there. It’s a very thoughtful and sensitive film. Of course it’s Martin Scorsese. It’s also gorgeous to look at and talk about genius casting: Willem Dafoe is probably the last person you think of when you try to picture Jesus. But it works beautifully, Dafoe gives a very nuanced performance, perfectly portraying a conflicted character that was both human and divine at the same time. He later went on to work with Marty on The Aviator, so that’s a big win for everybody.

4. Wild at Heart (1990, David Lynch)

Willem Dafoe plays a character named Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s Palm d’Or winning Wild at Heart. Aside from the fact that Bobby Peru is the coolest name for a character ever and the fact that this is an overall fantastic film, Dafoe provides the best scenes with his insane, villainous character that just owns every scene he’s in. It’s some of Lynch’s funniest dialogue, but it’s also very dark and horrible at the same time. Dafoe personifies evil in this film, which just goes to show how he can go from playing the Son of Man to playing one of the most terrible human beings I’ve seen on screen. But again it’s also a lot of fun.

3. eXistenZ (1999, David Cronenberg)
willem dafoe existenz

I guess you could say that Willem only has a cameo in this film, but of course sometimes an actor’s career is also making a brief guest appearance. Dafoe is one of those guys that are always welcome in smaller roles, like I’ve mentioned with The Grand Budapest Hotel and Nymphomaniac. David Cronenberg’s existenZ is a great sci-fi/horror film, the plot is very complex, but it’s basically about a video game designer who created this alternative reality game, but of course when they try to play it something goes horribly wrong. Again, Willem Dafoe is in this only for a couple minutes, but it’s one of my favorite David Cronenberg films.

2. Antichrist (2009, Lars von Trier)
antichrist willem dafoe
After collaborating with Lars on Manderlay (one of his weaker films, unfortunately) Dafoe returns and this time it’s a leading role. In the first film of the Depression Trilogy. Continuing his trend of great character names he plays He and Charlotte Gainsbourg plays She, his wife. Willem plays a psychiatrist, trying to cure his wife. They lost their child. He jumped out of the window. Dafoe is really trying to make his wife feel better, but it turns out that she’s not who he thought she was. People usually point to Gainsbourg performance in this, and rightfully so, because she’s amazing, but I would say that Dafoe is equally worthy of praise here.

1. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009, Werner Herzog)
my son my son what have ye done

If a Werner Herzog/David Lynch collaboration isn’t a dream come true, then I don’t know what is. Add fantastic actors like Michael Shannon, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie and pro wrestler Dave Batista and you’ve won my heart. Willem Dafoe plays a detective trying to solve murder case, Shannon is the nut-job. Of course being a Werner Herzog film everyone is a little bit crazy, but then you add David Lynch and the whole thing becomes surreal. How surreal? Let’s just say that there’s a scene with a dwarf on the world’s smallest horse, begin chased by a roster around the world’s largest tree. Is that random enough for you?

Dream collaborations
I think Dafoe would fit the aesthetic of someone like a Roman Polanski, in fact I’m surprised he hasn’t been in a Roman Polanski film yet. He’d be perfect. Also, that shot from Wild at Heart I posted above, reminds me of something Harmony Korine would like. Plus, Dafoe already worked with Werner Herzog, who’s friends with Harmony Korine, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to call him up and arrange something.

I’d also like to see him in more foreign films. He could be like a really misogynist character in a Catherine Breillat film or as Kim Ki-duk himself mentions in Arirang, his dream is to shoot a war film with Willem. He even wrote a script and all, specifically with Dafoe in mind. Also, because, why not? Darren AronofskyWhat about you guys? What are your favorite Willem Dafoe films and who do you want to see him work with in the future?


  1. Lia in Brussels

    His physiognomy is very distinctive. I saw him recently in Bob Wilson’s ‘The Old Woman’. Although under white paint and heavy make up, his face, his expression and manner were unmistakably Dafoe!

  2. Annie Oakley

    I have been on and off him for years and cant really make up my mind. He has a knack for collaborating with brilliant film makers though thats for sure.
    On a not entirely unrelated note I watched odd thomas last night.

    I enjoy both anton yelchin and willem dafoe so I thought it would be ok.
    It was a shit sandwich although both of them were very good.
    The film just blew.
    Nice article, they are becoming quite sophisticated. ★★★

  3. Pingback: 20 of the Most Visually Stunning Films of the 20th Century | black is white

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