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Movie Review: ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ Reveals Willem Dafoe as an Uncanny Vincent van Gogh

CREDIT: CBS Films

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner

Director: Julian Schnabel

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense Mental Turmoil and the Fallout of Self-Mutilation

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Limited)

Wow, does Willem Dafoe sure look like Vincent van Gogh. I had never noticed the resemblance before, but now that the actor has played the Dutch painter in At Eternity’s Gate, I cannot unsee it, and I am left to wonder how I never noticed it before. Perhaps adding a bandage to cover up an ear (or where an ear should be) was essential for making the similarity come into focus. Casting a lookalike actor is not exactly the most impressive cinematic feat, but its effectiveness can transcend its lack of difficulty, as is the case here. The effect is complete only if the actor manages to forge an emotional connection as striking as the physical one. Dafoe is certainly up to the task, with the deep pools in his eyes conveying the sublime weight of the world that hung upon van Gogh’s face.

Van Gogh is one of the most famous examples of the troubled, mentally ill artist. Director Julian Schnabel does not romanticize that side of him, but nor does he attempt to remove it entirely from his creative process. Depression probably made it more difficult for van Gogh to get his work done, but it also forced him into certain perspectives that are strikingly illuminated in his paintings. However, At Eternity’s Gate is less about van Gogh’s creative process and more about how he relates to the world. He has trouble relating to most people, just as they have trouble understanding him. But he does have at least one cherished friendship, with his fellow post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). My brother was telling me that he heard that Gauguin’s purpose in this film is essentially to regularly ask van Gogh, “You doing okay?” That is correct, and it is a crucial purpose. In the film, the ear-cutting incident is played as a moment of panic when van Gogh fears that Gauguin is going to abandon him. It is a highly relatable situation for anyone who has ever experienced anxiety related to their friends moving on in their lives, and it serves to make the struggles of someone who lived over 100 years ago less abstract. The world can be overwhelming, and it has been for some time. Somehow van Gogh made his mark on that journey. We should cherish that for what it is worth, whatever that inscrutable value is.

At Eternity’s Gate is Recommended If You Like: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Melancholia, Willem Dafoe in a starring role

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Starry Nights

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