Before the opening titles of the equally mercurial and maddening At Eternity's Gate, which features a near-perfect performance from Willem Dafoe, we hear the voice of Dafoe's Vincent van Gogh pierce a pitch-black screen: "I just want to be one of them," says van Gogh, commiserating on his lifelong bout of loneliness and a desire to escape into the ordinary.
Of course, there are two profound ironies at play here. No. 1: van Gogh was unlike anyone else, and his madness and inestimable genius became more mysterious as the years passed. No. 2: van Gogh's incomparable artistry is the antithesis of a pitch-black screen. His masterpieces explode with color. His sunflowers, his wheat fields, his irises, even his starry, starry nights are the very definition of vibrancy.
Director Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) attempts to harness the ferocity of van Gogh as many other directors have tried—think Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo or Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (personally, I prefer 1956's Lust for Life, starring an in-his-prime Kirk Douglas).
To be sure, this is another must-see performance from Dafoe, who, in my estimation, was robbed of the Oscar this past year for his supporting role in The Florida Project. Even more impressive is that Dafoe is 63, nearly double van Gogh's age during the events of At Eternity's Gate.
But a word of caution: At Eternity's Gate is at least 25 minutes too long. There are seemingly endless scenes with no dialogue whatsoever, and just as many unnecessarily long scenes crowded with too many words. At Eternity's Gate will most certainly be deconstructed by van Gogh scholars for generations. For the rest of us, it's a bit herky-jerky with the exception of Dafoe's performance, which should definitely be part of the Oscar conversation.