The 20 Best Willem Dafoe Movie Performances

10. The Boondock Saints (1999)

“For a few seconds this place was an Armageddon….. And there was a firefiiighhttt!!” One of those “critics hated it, audiences loved it” type of movies, “The Boondock Saints” is about two Irish Catholic brothers who become vigilantes and wipe out Boston’s criminal underworld in the name of God in a Tarantino-esque fashion.

Actually the “audience” didn’t exactly love it back in the time, it did poorly box office wise but through the years, it gained such strong cult following that they even made a sequel to it and it turned out to be one of Dafoe’s most popular performances. Playing an eccentric FBI agent, Dafoe gets a chance to the chew the scenery and the result is delicious and crazily entertaining. The film certainly won’t be as beloved as it is without his performance.


9. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Dafoe appears in comedies from time to ime. “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” is a notable example and he’s pretty funny in the previously mentioned “The Boondock Saints” but he rarely gets a chance to show some of his deadpan comedic talents which worked perfectly in Wes Anderson’s “Life Aquatic Steve Zissou”, Dafoe’s first collaboration with the director.

He proved that he’s able to transform his talents to the distinctive cinematic world of Anderson. Portraying Klaus Daimler, the German first mate who views Zissou; Dafoe becomes almost the highlight of the film, gets many laughs from his audience.


8. Spider-Man (2002)


Arguably his most widely seen performance. Thanks to his highly memorable work as Norman Osborn AND Green Goblin, Dafoe introduced himself to new, younger generations of fans and many, many people from all over the world. Still even the people who’re not interested in cinema can recognize him as “the Green Goblin guy”. He was more than that though. The way he uses his voice, and how he delivers his lines are incredibly entertaining.

Sam Raimi is the master of making a mix of horror and comedy and it becomes most evident in the mirror scene probably, where the result is slightly comic due to its over-the-top nature and at the same time, frightening. Only an actor with a massive talent like Willem could pull it off.

Even though seeing him in costume limits us from seeing his facial expressions, the performance still remains great thanks to voice work which he keeps changing. Oh, he also did most of the stunts in the film by himself!


7. Platoon (1986)

Platoon (1986)

After “Streets of Fire” and “To Live and Die in L.A.”, finally the big break came up for Dafoe with his Oscar-nominated turn in Oliver Stone’s masterpiece “Platoon”, one of the most honest and personal films ever made about the Vietnam War.

Dafoe plays Sgt. Elias, kind and corporative soldier unlike Sgt. Barnes (portrayed by Tom Berenger who got nominated for Oscar, just like Dafoe) whom he keeps clashing with. He becomes a friend and mentor to Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor but in general he doesn’t know why he’s there, as he had long lost his faith in Vietnam War.

Just like rest of the cast, Dafoe had to undergo an intensive two-week basic training under the supervision of military adviser and during the shooting; Dafoe got thirsty and drank water from a river, not knowing that a dead pig was not far upstream. He got sick for 24 hours. But hard work paid off, not only he got an Oscar nomination, but (a spoiler here) he happened to have one of the most iconic death scenes in movie history ever.


6. The Florida Project (2017)

If Brooklynn Prince was the heart of this wonderful film; it was Dafoe who gave its soul. As the manager of the motel the film sets in, Dafoe plays a father figure to children characters here and desperately tries to make their lives better. It’s such a soulful, beautiful turn with so many amazing moments.

Just watch his reaction to a potential predator hanging around the kids; how he acts friendly at first and how he explodes later on. He doesn’t even need to talk for audiences to feel his pain caused by what he keeps witnessing from his everyday work. You can see it in the scene before the ending or just in those silent moments where he smokes in the dark. It’s impossible to not feel the sympathy for the character. And that scene with birds? Amazing.

Previously, there had been only one actor in history to win all three major film critics’ awards (New York, LA, National Society) along with NBR award and then suddenly lose the Oscar. It was Michelle Pfeiffer (Fabulous Baker Boys)…. up until this year when the same thing happened to Dafoe. He was critics’ darling, everybody predicted him to win but suddenly he started to lose his frontrunner status and soon after, his Oscar.


5. The Hunter (2012)

When Dafoe received Lifetime Achievement award from Berlinale this year, he personally picked this film to be screened at that night which gives us an idea that, it’s probably one of his own favorite performances from himself. Dafoe plays a mercenary who is sent by a mysterious biotech company to the Tasmanian wilderness on a hunt for the last Tasmanian tiger.

Even though the story can get a little predictable from time to time, as a character study it works great due to once again, amazing performance by the man himself. If the slow-burn films are not for you, you may want to skip it but I’d suggest to give it a chance. You may find yourself impressed by the rich atmosphere, engaging character study and of course, a great Dafoe performance.


4. Wild at Heart (1990)

Willem Dafoe in Wild At Heart

His name is Bobby Peru, “like the country”. He’s the man who abandoned all of his humanity. He’s disgusting, he’s creepy and there’s only one man who can portray him as fascinating as it was. Willem Dafoe.

David Lynch considered Dafoe for a role in “Blue Velvet” (as you can guess, for Dennis Hopper’s part) previously but it was in “Wild at Heart” where they finally collaborated. It’s as deranged and twisted love story only could be made by Lynch who describes his film as a “a love story that barrels along down a strange highway through the twisted modern world”.

The film is full of weird and some creepy characters but even if the whole cast is great, Dafoe particularly stands out. He makes Bobby Peru probably the most memorable character of the film. He’s creepily funny and almost all of his scenes are great to watch. The one particular moment with Laura Dern in the motel room is probably the scene that leaves the most impact in the film.


3. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)


Martin Scorsese’s controversial masterpiece saw Dafoe in one of his strongest and most powerful turns. One of the greatest films ever made on a religious figure, “The Last Temptation of Christ” aims to be a ‘fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict,’ ‘the battle between the spirit and the flesh,’ as Nikos Kazantzakis summarized the theme of his novel.

Jesus is typically shown in a divine way in most of the films, but “Last Temptation of Christ” focuses more on his human side, rather than divine side and explores the conflict between both sides. Dafoe is utterly compelling in his role. He captures the half-human, half-divine postulation of Jesus by portraying him as a man not fully comfortable in either mode. He’s been told that he’s the Messiah the Jews have been waiting for, but he isn’t ready to accept it yet. He’s afraid of God’s love and His purpose for him, and he dreads the consequences of becoming God’s chosen.

Unfortunately the controversy around the film hurt Dafoe’s awards chances (he was not nominated for a single prize for his work here) but it remains as one of his most powerful works, also probably one of his most complex characters. By the way, bit of a trivia here: Willem could not see for three days during the shooting, because he got too many eye drops to dilate the pupils of his eyes in bright sunlight to achieve a superhuman effect.


2. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

What if “Nosferatu” actor Max Shreck was a real vampire? “Shadow of the Vampire” takes this strange but simple premise and turns it into a wickedly funny and frightening tale. The film owes its success to its creepy atmosphere and of course, Willem Dafoe’s remarkable performance.

AMPAS is known for dismissing horror films but Dafoe’s performance has reached such an undeniable level of greatness and earned widespread acclaim that they couldn’t ignore his performance and he got his second Oscar nomination, becoming the only actor ever receiving this honor for portraying a vampire.

John Malkovich is also great at portraying obsessed, control-freak movie director but make no mistake: it is Dafoe’s show. Even if he’s buried under a make-up, Dafoe manages to portray his character as both pitiful and frightening.

While the film is exploring on its theme of how far a man can go for his art, Dafoe is getting some really amazing moments. Some of the powerful scenes include him describing his reaction to reading “Dracula” and a confrontation with Murnau near the end of the film. Dafoe has played some creepy characters in his career, but none of them can top Max Schreck…. Or should we say Count Orlok?


1. Light Sleeper (1992)

As mentioned, Dafoe frequently collaborates with Paul Schrader. Even though he appeared in Schrader-scripted “The Last Temptation of Christ” before, “Light Sleeper” makes their first collaboration as a director-actor duo. “Light Sleeper” is about Manhattan drug dealer and former addict John LeTour (Dafoe) who is nervous that his boss Ann (Susan Sarandon, also great) is leaving the drug trade for the straight world of cosmetics.

Schrader has touched the subject of loneliness of a night worker before, through Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and American Gigolo’s Julian Kay and here he gets a hell of a great performance from Dafoe who is in every scene of the film and develops a fascinating psychological profile.

LeTour feels further pressure from a police crackdown on dealers following a recent drug-related murder and he also meets with his greatest love Marianne again. She’s now recovered from her drug days and is now scared to reunite with LeTour as she thinks even being around of him can make her go back to drugs again.

In some segments with Marianne, he gets a chance to show his skills as a romantic lead– a man with passion and love, but it’s also a character of a wounded soul who has countless worries and pain. Just like “The Florida Project”, even non-speaking scenes has a great power. “Light Sleeper” is one of the saddest stories Schrader had to offer, it’s a great look at loneliness and the world of dealers who don’t use but it’s Dafoe’s mesmerizing performance which makes it work as great as it is.


Honorable Mentions:

“Dog Eat Dog” (scene-stealing performance again), “My Hindu Friend”, “Streets of Fire”, “The Smile Man” (which led to that famous gif), “The Reckoning” (entertaining mystery period film), “Edges of the Lord” (especially if you liked to watch him as a father figure as in “Florida Project”), “American Dreamz” (not a great movie maybe but he channels Dick Cheney in a very entertaining way), “Daybreakers” (because he’s also great in genre films), “Mississippi Burning” (he doesn’t get a great material to work with here as much as his co-star Gene Hackman but he finds a way to save his character from being one-dimensional), “The Dust of Time”, “Spider Man 2” (“Avenge me!!”), “The Loveless”, “The Fault in Our Stars”, “Grand Budapest Hotel”.