The short, brilliant, tragic life of Vincent Van Gogh has long been a source of inspiration for creatives of all types. Something about the mystique of the artist with severe mental illness, whose greatness was only recognized years after his death, resonates with frustrated souls the world over. But it can be distressingly easy for a story as nuanced and contradictory as Van Gogh's, with all its bright colors and violent strokes, to become flattened into easy answers under the harsh light of the camera, an artist's implement that so rarely matches the delicacy of the paintbrush.
What a treat, then, to arrive At Eternity's Gate. The lovely new biopic by Julian Schnabel offers a vision of Van Gogh's final days that is at once bold, blissful and deeply sad. Focusing on the final few years of the painter's life, when he left Paris for the rural southern French town of Arles in order to be near the nature that so inspired him, Schnabel (with co-writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg) feeds his subject's thirst for purpose without sugarcoating the immense darkness that plagued him as his mental and physical health deteriorated. This is a very textured film, like one of its subject's paintings, with their great, big globs of color coming off the canvases.
At 63, Willem Dafoe is nearly twice the age Van Gogh was when he died. Yet the actor helps close that noticeable gap with the tremendous physicality he brings to the role – one of the finest performances of the year. Gazing out at the dewy fields with glee, rubbing the blessed dirt on his face to better understand its properties, Dafoe's Van Gogh is often too blissed-out on the feelings of life to take in much of any other sense. We see him paint in rough, rambunctious strokes fitting of someone who could churn out a completed work in an hour. He's barely able to set up his easel in a field before he goes to town.
But the actor is also very good at making Van Gogh unpleasant to be around: blowing past social cues, exploding at a group of schoolchildren who invade his space, getting too close to people who clearly think he smells bad. As he loses his grip on sanity in the film's second half, he can no longer allow his devotion to the work to overcome his shortcomings in life. Dafoe's final scenes are dark and deflating, with only a desperate hope that someday in the future, people will enjoy his paintings.