Willem Dafoe’s Most Unique Performances, Ranked

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Willem Dafoe has acted in more than 130 projects during his decade-spanning career. Never sticking to one genre, Dafoe has crafted a filmography ranging from animated family pictures to gruesome horror. His dedication to the craft has made him one of the most revered and recognizable performers today. From John Wick to Finding Nemo, Dafoe has left his mark on cinema.

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Dafoe has such a unique screen presence that filmmakers have found interesting ways to use him. Having worked with a wide range of talented filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Robert Eggers, Sam Raimi, and Mary Harron, to name a few, Dafoe has been known to take very eccentric roles that push boundaries, using his caliber as a well-respected actor to take on some very unique roles. His most recent film, Poor Things, has landed him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. Here are some of the actor’s most unique performances.

Update December 11, 2023: In honor of Dafoe’s recent Golden Globe nomination, this list has been updated with more great performances and where each title can be watched, either streaming or in theaters.

10 American Psycho (2000)

Willem Dafoe American Psycho
Lionsgate Films

Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho — based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name — is known for many things, such as the film’s cast of well-known stars. Amongst Chloë Sevigny, Jared Leto, and a deranged performance from Christian Bale, Dafoe appears as off-kilter detective Donald Kimball in this psychological satire. Kimball is introduced as the lead investigator in a murder case. His notes guide him to the guilty Patrick Bateman, played by Bale. Harron’s attentive and sharp directing makes this seemingly uniform performance from Dafoe unique.

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Harron had directed Dafoe to deliver his lines three times, each from a different perspective. Dafoe was directed to act as if Kimball knew Bateman was guilty, again as diligently suspicious, and finally as entirely oblivious. Harron then spliced the footage and arranged it in a new order, making it challenging to discern Kimball’s stance on Bateman. The result is a rotating display of the film’s ranging tones. Seeing Dafoe transition from carefree to authoritative without cues makes his scenes with Bale some of the film’s most tensely humorous. Rent American Psycho on Apple TV.

9 Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Willem Dafoe Shadow of the Vampire
Universal Pictures

Re-envisioning the lore behind the enigmatic actor Max Schreck, who played Count Orlok in 1922s Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire, would give Willem Dafoe one of the most striking and macabre roles of his career. The performance is elevated by a strong cast surrounding Dafoe’s shrunken and ominous form, with John Malkovich playing the role of the filmmaker trying to decipher his ghastly muse.

The movie was released to critical acclaim, with Dafoe earning him a Best Actor nomination at the Acadamy Awards. He would also pick up the Best Actor award on the festival circuit for his portrayal of Schreck at Stiges and Fantasporto. It was undeniably a transformative role that showed the range of Dafoe and is a testament to his ability to morph into characters without relying on method acting. Shadow of the Vampire is not available for streaming or rent.

8 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Willem Dafoe in Fantastic Mr. Fox
20th Century Fox

Throughout Dafoe’s filmography, he typically shines in voice roles and Wes Anderson films. The actor was as memorable as ever in 2003’s Finding Nemo, and serves well as the oddball first mate Klaus Daimler in Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Equally engaging in other Anderson pictures, Dafoe is most entertaining as Rat, or The Rat, a villain in the auteur’s stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox adaptation.

While brief, Dafoe’s voice role combines the best aspects of his voiceover work and character acting. Rat’s raspy-voiced drawl is a delightful touch, while his movements, captured with animation references from both Dafoe and Anderson, are purely enthusiastic. Behind-the-scenes footage of Dafoe and other cast-mates acting out their roles depicts the overall care that went into the Anderson film. Stream Fantastic Mr. Fox on Max.

7 The Northman (2022)

Willem Dafoe in The Northman
Focus Features

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Robert Eggers’ Viking epic The Northman features an array of great performers. In a restricted yet massively important role is Dafoe as Heimir the Fool, serving as a vital figure in antihero Prince Amleth’s bizarre spiritual journey. Providing the means for a psychedelic ritual that forever binds Amleth to an insatiable desire for vengeance, Heimir is nearly a symbol of hope for the young prince. A harborer of his right-of-passage and a symbol of his focus, it’s made clear Amleth does not forget Heimir’s influence well into adulthood.

While the role is limited, Heimir follows up on the Eggers-Dafoe magic seen in 2019’s The Lighthouse, once again unleashing the wholehearted madness of a Dafoe wildcard. While Dafoe would have been welcomed in a leading role, the scaled-back performance is equally unsettling as it is captivating. Stream The Northman on Starz.

6 The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Willem Dafoe The Last Temptation of Christ
Universal Pictures

Out of Dafoe’s earlier leading roles, which began to take off in the 1980s, this is one of the actor’s most daring. Playing Jesus Christ, even Dafoe would later refer to the performance as brazen, but the film’s take on the religious figure is all the more compelling with his presence. A Martin Scorsese picture, The Last Temptation of Christ‘s take on Jesus, is not conventional. It does not align with the writing found in the Gospel or other religious texts and instead takes inspiration for its main character from the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.

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The film’s take on the religious figure searches for nuance in Jesus’ relationship with divinity and sinning. Searching for direction by any means, The Last Temptation’s Jesus is flawed, personal, and, by his admission, not always so courageous. Still, the tale shows Jesus pushing himself to the utmost vulnerability, seeking self-imposed punishment in exchange for forgiveness. In his early thirties, when the film was released, this was a challenging leading role for Dafoe. Rent The Last Temptation of Christ on Apple TV.

5 The Spider-Man Universe (2002-2021)

Willem Dafoe Spider-man
Sony Pictures

Appearing in four films within the Spider-Man universe, twice as a central villain and twice again through cameos, Dafoe’s tenure as Marvel’s iconic Green Goblin has spanned nineteen years, albeit with a gap in the resume. Dafoe’s Goblin first appeared in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, serving as the main villain, then later appearing as visions in Raimi’s direct sequels. Dafoe’s take on the villain received even wider scope with his innovative revival in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home, elevating his role as the Marvel antagonist into a nineteen-year affair.

Not often achieved on such a scale, Green Goblin is a unique role for Dafoe and a unique comic book-to-film translation. In what feels like an endless pool of comic book villains, Dafoe’s Goblin gains serious credit for terrorizing multiple generations of Spider-Men and proving he is still one of the greats years down the line. Stream Spider-Man on Disney+.and Spider-Man: No Way Home on Starz

4 Poor Things (2023)

Willem Dafoe as Godwin Baxter in Poor Things
Searchlight Pictures

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The dark comedy/fantasy film directed by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things follows a young Victorian woman named Bella (played by Emma Stone) who, after being resurrected by a scientist, runs off to embark on an odyssey of self-discovery and sexual liberation. Willem Dafoe plays the role of Dr. Godwin Baxter, the mangled scientist responsible for the rebirth of Bella. Dafoe’s role in the bizarre and brilliant tour de force is a case of perfect casting.

Leaning on the actor’s ability to embody a character and make them sympathetic regardless of appearance is a testament to his unique skills. This is obviously due to Dafoe’s approach to the character. In an interview with EW, he aptly summed up his perception of the troubled yet compassionate doctor; “I always get upset when people call him a mad scientist because he actually is quite a compassionate character,” Dafoe continues, “When he does this reanimation of the Bella character when he transplants this brain, it’s for science. It’s not devilish, it’s not crazy. He’s trying to advance something and, in a funny way, he also gives himself hope.” The role has since earned Dafoe a Golden Globe nomination and could land him another Oscar nomination. Poor Things is currently playing in theaters..

3 Antichrist (2009)

Willem Dafoe in Antichrist
Nordisk Film Distribution

In one of his more visually unsettling films, Dafoe plays He in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Acting alongside a superb Charlotte Gainsbourg as She, Dafoe plays a husband who forces his grieving wife into exposure therapy following the death of their son. Blaming herself, he brings his wife to a cabin where she once spent a summer with their son. There, he expects her to overcome the tragedy. What occurs instead is a series of events that spiral into graphic horror and sexual unease.

Dafoe’s turn as the character is startling and expertly crafted. Cementing his range again, Dafoe plays an amoral character who interchanges between the villain and the victim. Convincingly carrying some of the film’s most physical feats, too, the actor is bewitching in the twisted role. Stream Antichrist on the Criterion Channel.

2 The Lighthouse (2019)

Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse
A24

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A performance that left Robert Pattinson terrified, Dafoe stars in this Robert Eggers-directed fantasy horror following two lighthouse keepers with severe cases of cabin fever. Always moving at a crescendo, their madness and contempt for one another fester throughout, showcasing Pattinson and Dafoe at their most raw and energized. While Pattinson is excellent, Dafoe’s performance in The Lighthouse is a bit more hardy.

Similar to Detective Kimball, it is often difficult to get a read on Dafoe’s character, the longtime lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake. Seemingly brimming with secrets, Dafoe plays a Kafkaesque antagonist opposite Pattinson. Throughout, Dafoe feels omnipotent atop the lonesome lighthouse. Stream The Lighthouse on Prime Video.

1 At Eternity’s Gate (2018)

Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate
Netflix

One of Dafoe’s four Oscar nominations was for playing Vincent van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate. His take on the tortured artist is not only Dafoe’s most tactful in memory but his most human, thoughtful, and poignant, too. As if stepping through one of van Gogh’s self-portraits, Dafoe physically transforms into the Dutch painter. Informed by a close reading of his known characteristics, scriptwriters Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg, and Schnabel illustrate van Gogh’s complexities and shortcomings with care.

Dafoe’s portrayal is particularly vulnerable when acting alongside Rupert Friend and Oscar Isaac, who play van Gogh’s younger brother and close friend, respectively. The artist’s views on the world, which both inspired and alienated him, are conveyed by Dafoe with palpable heartbreak. Making Dafoe’s uncanny embodiment feel all the more anomalous, the actor was sixty-two when the film was released: a quarter-century older than van Gogh at his death. Stream At Eternity’s Gate on Hoopla.

Dafoe is a major part of the Spider-Man franchise, so check out the best quotes from the Spider-Man movies below:

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