Now at age 67, it seems like Willem Dafoe is as integral a part of movie culture as the Hollywood sign itself. The iconic actor came from the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin, and studied drama at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 1976, Dafoe moved to New York City and helped form an avant-garde theater troupe called The Wooster Group. Dafoe would continue to perform with The Wooster Group well after rising to Hollywood stardom.
However, the reason that we’re here is to talk about Willem Dafoe’s film career, which began in 1980 with the Michaal Cimino-directed epic Western Heaven’s Gate. In this film, Dafoe played a cockfighter working for Jeff Bridges’s character. But, the majority of scenes featuring Dafoe were cut from the film, and Dafoe did not receive credit for his work on Heaven’s Gate. Two years later, in 1982, Dafoe worked on his first credited film, The Loveless, and actually starred as the leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang. Dafoe continued to land roles all through the 1980s, and he really hasn’t slowed down ever since.
At age 67, Dafoe recently starred in the psychological horror film Inside, which premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. He’s also announced that he will be cast in Beetlejuice 2, although his role has not yet been revealed. So, in honor of Willem Dafoe’s very long and still active career, let’s look back through his filmography at the # best movies of his career.
1. The Boondock Saints
The reason that the 1999 action thriller The Boondock Saints comes first on this list isn’t because it got the best reviews. In fact, this film got absolutely atrocious reviews. The Boondock Saints is the first film on this list because it’s the film that people most often associate with Willem Dafoe (either this role or a certain supervillain who we’ll talk about later in this article). This was not a good film in a conventional sense, but it has become one of the most famous cult classics in film history because of how over-the-top, quotable, and at times hilarious it is. And Dafoe’s role as Agent Paul Smecker has become the stuff of legends among B-movie fans.
The Boondock Saints is about two Irish Catholic brothers in Boston who go on a killing spree in the name of vigilante justice. The brothers, played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus, go around killing mafia bosses in order to address corruption in the city. Dafoe’s character Agent Paul Smecker, who is one of the most bizarre and unpredictable characters in cinema history, is tasked with investigating the murders.
The other role that most people instantly associate with Willem Dafoe is Green Goblin, the main villain of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. The first installment of the trilogy, in which the Green Goblin’s backstory is explained, was released in 2002. In this film, Peter Parker befriends a man named Harry Osborne (played by James Franco), whose father is Norman Osborne, the founder and CEO of Oscorp. After being exposed to The Goblin Serum, Norman Osborne’s mind splits in two, and he begins to hear the voice of an evil goblin in his mind.
Willem Dafoe does an unbelievable job portraying a man who’s dealing with a schizophrenia-like voice in his mind. Honestly, Dafoe’s performance overshadowed every other actor in the film by a large margin. For this reason, the Green Goblin is one of Dafoe’s most well-remembered roles.
One of the best war films to ever hit the silver screen, the 1986 movie Platoon focuses heavily on the psychological toll that war can have on soldiers. And, if you want two actors who can behave in a psychologically unstable manner, casting Willem Dafoe and Charlie Sheen is a pretty good move. Sheen stars in this film as Chris Taylor, a U.S. Army volunteer who arrives in South Vietnam and is put under the command of the young and inexperienced Lieutenant Wolfe. However, he’s able to find comfort in the much older and more experienced Sergeant Elias (played by Willem Dafoe).
Platoon was praised for being extremely accurate to the experience of a soldier in Vietnam, largely because director Oliver Stone had served in Vietnam himself. This film won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound at the Academy Awards, and Willem Dafoe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work on Platoon.
4. The Lighthouse
One of his more recent roles, the 2019 film The Lighthouse, features Willen Dafoe alongside Robert Pattinson as two men tasked with watching over a lighthouse while living in complete isolation. In fact, Dafoe and Pattinson are really the only two actors with any lines in this black-and-white film. And, while that may sound slightly boring at first, the intense dynamic between their characters will have you on the edge of your seat for the entire duration of the film.
The Lighthouse comes to you from the mind of Robert Eggers, who also wrote and directed The Witch and The Northman. The film is influenced heavily by Ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the work of Sigmund Freud, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Overall, this is a deeply contemplative and supremely intense piece of cinema and both Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson delivered incredible performances. Personally, this is one of my favorite films to come out in the last decade.
5. The Last Temptation of Christ
In one of the most controversial roles in his long career, Willem Dafoe was asked to play Jesus Christ by Martin Scorcese for the 1988 epic religious drama film The Last Temptation of Christ. While Dafoe’s performance in this film was praised for its emotional intensity and authenticity, the film as a whole caused public outrage and was even banned in several countries.
Right-wing Christian groups, in particular, took major issue with the depictions of Jesus’s sexual temptations. This led to a litany of anonymous death threats, none of which, luckily, were acted upon. Blockbuster even refused to stock the film in their video rental stores. Still, as a piece of dramatic cinema, The Temptation of Christ was a well-made film with some amazing acting performances, including Dafoe’s portrayal of Christ.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps the most famous film by the legendary director Wes Anderson, who’s well-known for putting together some amazing ensemble casts. This film features a long list of big-ticket actors, including Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, and, of course, Willem Dafoe.
This film follows the journey of a young bellhop and an old hotel concierge who become best friends. The story involves the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting and the dispute over a family’s massive fortune. Willem Dafoe’s character, J. G. Jopling, is a deadly eyeliner-wearing assassin clad in black leather who’s been hired to kill the old concierge because he has inherited the valuable Renaissance painting in question. Like all Wes Anderson movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is quirky and off-beat, and Willem Dafoe’s character is one of the best characters in this strange and pseudo-historic world.