At Eternity's Gate


            What makes for a Best Actor performance?  The Golden Globes nominated Willem Dafoe for his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh.  Of course none of us ever met Vincent Van Gogh; he died 118 years ago.  But he left an incredible legacy.  Nobody ever painted like he did.  Few artists speak so directly to the emotions of the viewer.

            In the film, Vincent is a tortured, isolated soul.  He tries to join in the gatherings of other painters of the day; Impressionism is still favored, Pablo Picasso was still a child, so Cubism has not yet entered the scene, much less abstract modernism.  But Van Gogh was not in favor during his lifetime; his paintings were considered rough and crude.  He had tried other professions, even being a pastor like his father, but none were his passion like his painting.  However, he couldn't make a living at it.  He had to be supported by his brother Theo, who wasn't wealthy himself.  But he was an art dealer, and he did understand the idiosyncracies of artists.

            Vincent would have periods of feverish activity, where he would produce 75 paintings in 90 days.  Then dark moods would overtake him, and he would claim not to remember things that happened to him.  He's accused of assaulting a young woman on a lonely country road, but he says he doesn't remember that.  His only artist friend was Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac),who also did not enjoy much commercial success during his lifetime, but has since received a lot of attention for his Polynesian period.  In the movie, Van Gogh begs Gaugin not to leave, but Gaugin explains that he has to go elsewhere to develop his own style;  the French painter's fraternity is too stifling.  Van Gogh weeps, and then in a depressive fit he barely remembers, he cut off his ear, and gave it to the waitress at the nearby tavern to give to Gaugin.  Asked many times afterward to explain this action, Vincent could not.  He was incarcerated more than once.  People assumed he was crazy.  But Vincent said he saw things in a way other people didn't.  He felt his calling was to show people what he saw, so others could see it, too.

            Vincent Van Gogh died of a stab wound to the stomach.  It's never clear whether it was self-inflicted; the movie claims it to be the work of a couple of boys from the village, but Vincent, on his deathbed, refused to implicate anyone.

            Willem Dafoe completely convinces us that he is Vincent Van Gogh.  Director Julian Schnable utilizes a haunting musical score, and will occasionally echo previous dialogue like a reverberation in Vincent's head.  Schnable shoots many scenes out of doors, in remote countryside vistas, where Van Gogh loved to sit, sometimes to paint what he sees, and other times to just soak in the atmosphere, and observe the way the light plays on the surfaces of the trees and the fields.  In Schnable's fable, Van Gogh is both the misunderstood genius and the man before his time, as well as a tragic figure of mental illness gone untreated. 

            Too bad they didn't play Don McLean's classic song “Starry, Starry, Night” at the end.  But if you know it already, it will reverberate in your head, anyway.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association