Vincent Van Gogh was a genius, but people didn't know that until after he was gone. Sometimes, the legend doesn't arrive until the body has gone cold. In Van Gogh's case, the weathered state of mind that claimed the final years of his life provides kettle corn type-fodder for filmmakers.
With At Eternity's Gate, Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, Before Night Falls) takes his shot at the famous painter's unorthodox life, and brings along acclaimed actor Willem Dafoe for the ride. The film, scripted by Jean-Claude Carriere and Louis Kugelberg, follows the final years of Van Gogh's life in France near the end of his life.
While Rupert Friend and Mads Mikkelson give solid supporting performances, Dafoe is the one who truly transports you inside the painter's head for two hours. It takes a special kind of talent to break down the madness that existed in this man's head. The Edgar Allen Poe of the painter society, Van Gogh was hard on himself, toxic around most strangers, and was ridiculed for his work for many years...or so we think.
Schnabel and the writers take some liberties in his life, taking the paint brush out of the man's head and brushing a few of their own strokes on what catapulted Van Gogh into his final stressful weeks. Without ever truly explaining it, the filmmaker manages to leave you thinking the toll that an addiction and gift can take on a man.
Halfway through the film, a group of school kids run across the woods to Van Gogh, who is quietly painting the trunk of a tree. Right as they dart over to him and start to reach their hands out towards the still wet canvas, alarms are going off in the man's head, commencing shock and screams. When the teacher criticizes his work and blasts the new era of artists, Van Gogh loses it completely.
Dafoe revels in scenes such as these, burying himself in the persona of a guy that many still don't know that well. Van Gogh's own brother, Theo (Friend), tried his best to get close and couldn't help much. Their closeness in the film is one of the better parts of Schnabel's film, which takes some getting used to. The film gives off a cold, isolated feel that doesn't exactly suck your affection in quick. Van Gogh wasn't an easy person to love, so why would a movie about his life be any different.
The pacing of the film is mildly slothful, taking its time in setting up the story and grabbing your interest. Several scenes simply take place around Dafoe, a handful of paint brushes, and a canvas. If you are tired heading into this film, grab some espresso because the film may put you to sleep if your mind is ill-equipped for the long haul.
When I first left the film, I wasn't that impressed. Over the next couple hours, I grew to understand what it was going for. Sometimes, films work you over in different ways. Looking at Schnabel's previous films and the angle he was taking on Van Gogh's life, At Eternity's Gate is effective in taking you into the uncomfortable frayed zone of the painter's head space and train of thought. He went to some dark places and many presume he did the damage to himself and not muggers or kids in the street. A dark subject deserved a dark take.
It doesn't work without Dafoe. An underrated actor for his entire career, he ascends here with a tough role. Outside of being a legit lookalike for Van Gogh, he goes for broke here, delivering a performance that makes you question the man and feel empathy at the same time. It takes a high wire talent to make this film and role work, and Dafoe is willing to go to that place. It's a layered piece of work.
At Eternity's Gate works as a solid companion piece to last year's hit documentary, Loving Vincent, which covered the entire life of the artist in animated form. In a way, the two films cover each realm of his existence: the metaphysical, subconscious, and reality version. While last year's is stronger on its own, Schnabel's film hits harder as a result.
I didn't love this film, but I admired its goal and was blown away by Dafoe's dedication. If you want to know more about the man in his final days, come ready and just wait by Eternity's Gate.