Listen to an interview with Willem Dafoe and hear a good-natured Midwesterner who approaches his job with no pretension. That unassuming quality shocks those who only know Dafoe through his varied and courageous career, one that stretches across four decades. Dafoe has made his name in shocking, controversial movies, playing Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ or a grieving parent who works through his suffering with violence. But Dafoe is just as great in more mainstream roles, including the Green Goblin of the Spider-Man films or a wise fish in Finding Nemo. These 25 great performances capture the range of Dafoe's acting ability, even if the actor himself doesn't think he's such a big deal.
1. The Florida Project (2017)
In the popular imagination, Willem Dafoe plays over-the-top bad guys, men who embrace their darker natures and take them to places others would sooner avoid. Such a figure would fit into Sean Baker’s beautiful and tragic The Florida Project, about a troubled single mother (Bria Vinaite) trying to raise her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in the shadow of Disneyland. Instead, Dafoe plays kindhearted motel manager Bobby, a guy whose gruff demeanor allows him to protect the children and show grace, albeit sometimes hard, to his ne’er-do-well tenants.
2. The Lighthouse (2019)
No one but Willem Dafoe could play Thomas Wake, the ragged old Wickie in The Lighthouse. In the hands of any other actor, Wake would devolve into a pirate cartoon, something better suited to SpongeBob Squarepants than Robert Eggers’s surreal story about two men going mad in an isolated lighthouse. But Dafoe commits to the role, using his weathered looks and flinty voice, calling down curses from Poseidon with the same commitment that he asks his partner (Robert Pattinson) about the quality of his cooking.
3. Platoon (1986)
By 1986, Dafoe already had a type, giving director Oliver Stone something to cast against for his Vietnam epic Platoon. In a movie filled with cruel people who use the lawlessness of the war to indulge in their worst qualities, Dafoe’s Sgt. Elias defends his humanity, even more so than innocent protagonist Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen). As Elias leads members of his platoon, he tries to maintain his dignity and the dignity of the Vietnamese, a battle as hopeless as the war in which he fights.
4. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
German actor Max Schreck made his name playing usual and grotesque characters, none more so than Count Orlok, the vampire in the 1922 classic Nosferatu. In real life, Schreck’s unusual offscreen behavior raised more than a few eyebrows. In the world of director E. Elias Merhige and writer Steven Katz’s Shadow of the Vampire, Schreck (Dafoe) was an actual vampire, brought into the movie business by obsessed director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich). That unusual take could have resulted in a terrible film, but Dafoe and Malkovich never wink at the audience, making the film a bizarre delight.
5. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Today, people laugh when they learn that Martin Scorsese cast Dafoe as Jesus for his Paul Schrader-penned adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis book The Last Temptation of Christ. Leaving aside that a Midwesterner of German descent makes a strange choice to play a 1st-century Palestinian Jew, Dafoe’s weird energy seems very different than that of Max Von Sydow, Jim Caviezel, and other famous people who have portrayed Jesus. But as a fully human Christ, a man who feels haunted by God and fears his ultimate sacrifice, Dafoe embodies a fallible messiah.
6. Streets of Fire (1984)
Dafoe already had a biker role under his belt when he signed onto Walter Hill’s rock opera Streets of Fire, but none were as perfect as Raven, the leather-clad baddie. Hill’s story of a grizzled loner, Tom Cody (Michael Paré), who teams with a mechanic (Amy Madigan) to rescue kidnapped rockstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) walks the line between the grit of 50s biker pictures and the technicolor of an MGM musical. Dafoe’s gender-bending take on the leader of the gang melds the sultry allure of black leather with the aggressive growl of his motorcycles, making something altogether unique.
7. Antichrist (2009)
Even before the Lars Von Trier film Antichrist goes to stomach-churning extremes, some viewers might place Dafoe’s character (known only as “He”) among his cruelest roles. After he and his wife (“She,” played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) experience the death of their child, the two go through a prolonged period of grief, one that destroys the mother. As a therapist, He tries to treat She and guide her through the experience, which sometimes feels manipulative. But Dafoe depicts He as a fellow grieving parent, someone who is making sense of the ineffable tragedy using the tools available to him.
8. Wild at Heart (1990)
Dafoe has no problem going big for a part, but rarely has he gone as far as he does as Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. The most off-putting character in Lynch’s most off-putting film (which is saying something), Bobby Peru embraces his disgusting nature and dies the way he lived with an outrageous final scene. In the same way that Lynch, adapting the novel by Barry Gifford, balances the gross with the romantic, grounding the Wizard of Oz-inspired romance of Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern), Dafoe makes Bobby Peru somehow real within a wholly unreal world.
9. Spider-Man (2002)
The most popular of Dafoe’s roles, some might be tempted to scoff at his take on the classic villain, the Green Goblin. In a period where we like complex villains with good points, folks like Thanos or Killmonger, the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man has no shades of gray, a man who feels no self-consciousness even when monologuing in a silly green costume. But Dafoe never winks at the camera, never condescends to the material. He remains invested in being a scientist-turned-supervillain, and the movie is better for it.
10. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Starting with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Dafoe became one of Wes Anderson’s regular players, contributing to all of the Texan director’s films up through his latest release, Asteroid City. As great as he is in all of these flicks, Dafoe’s most interesting part came in Anderson’s underrated Jacques Cousteau riff. As with Spider-Man, Dafoe doesn’t acknowledge the red beanie on his grizzled head or the tiny shorts he sports. Rather, Dafoe uncovers layers of empathy for his character Klaus, letting his need for acceptance shine through, even when acting jealous of newcomer Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) and respect for Zissou (Bill Murray).
11. American Psycho (2000)
Director Mary Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner had a daunting task before them when they translated Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho for the big screen. Not only did they need to realize Ellis’s nauseating depiction of an immoral Yuppie, but they also needed to capture the book’s unreliable narrator–always a challenge when using a more-or-less objective camera. Harron achieved this goal by directing Dafoe to depict his detective character in different ways. Sometimes, he played Kimball as believing the tales of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). Sometimes, he doubted Batemen, and other times, he wasn’t sure. By finding continuity between the different takes, Dafoe helps sell a complex character, elevating the film over the source material.
12. Finding Nemo (2003)
Given his distinctive face and full-bodied performances, it’s easy to overlook the power of Dafoe’s voice. But director Andrew Stanton, who co-wrote the movie with Robert Peterson and David Reynolds, takes advantage of the actor’s gravelly timbre for the Pixar film Finding Nemo. Sure, designers give the angel fish Gil a deep scar that recalls the actor’s own features. But Dafoe brings notes of vulnerability and hope to the wisened sea creature, allowing him to encourage young Nemo (Alexander Gould) to escape the fish tank that holds him and reunite with his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks).
13. To Live and Die in LA (1985)
At first glance, To Live and Die and LA feels like a companion piece to Walter Hill's Streets of Fire. William Friedkin eschews the gritty realism of his previous crime movie, The French Connection, for the neon lights of 80s Los Angeles. But where even the most shocking parts of Hill’s film feel like something from a fairy tale, Friedkin doesn’t turn away from the violence. The strongest connection between the movies is Dafoe, who brings the same sensuality to his evil counterfeiter, Rick Masters. Dafoe has rarely looked so pretty, something his rivals mistake his softness for weakness, an assumption he disabuses with every brutal kill.
14. The English Patient (1996)
As this list shows, Dafoe feels most comfortable in offbeat parts rather than Oscar favorites like Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of the Michael Ondaatje novel The English Patient. However, Dafoe manages to act the rascal, even in a grandiose tale of a scarred World War I pilot (Ralph Fiennes) reuniting with his love (Juliette Binoche). His mysterious agent, Caravaggio, skulks around the edges of the film, promising an explosion of anarchy to upset the otherwise stolid proceedings.
15. Mississippi Burning (1988)
Despite the other-worldly energy he projects, Dafoe is a Midwesterner, who got his start doing theater in Milwaukee. That upbringing serves him well in Mississippi Burning, in which he plays Northerner FBI Agent Alan Ward, who comes to the South to investigate the disappearance of three race activists. Paired with Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman), a native Southerner who can talk to the locales, Dafoe captures the moral outrage of the audience, a man who rages against a system he cannot, and does not want, to understand.
16. Affliction (1997)
On a surface level, the plot of Paul Schrader’s Affliction follows an investigation into the suspicious death of a hunter in New Hampshire. But as policeman Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) looks further into the death, he must face unpleasant truths about his family, including brother Rolfe (Dafoe). Schrader embraces the despair of the Russel Banks novel on which his film is based, covering the story as thick as the New England snow. Surprisingly, Dafoe finds notes of lightness in his character, offering a welcome respite from the otherwise punishing film.
17. Death Note (2017)
To devotees of the manga and anime that director Adam Wingard brought to America for a live-action Netflix film, Death Note fails to reach the heights of the source material. But even the most grouchy viewer can appreciate Dafoe’s take on Ryuk, the demon who kills anyone whose name is written in the film’s central book. Although he contributes just a voice to the film, Ryuk feels like a character Dafoe would portray in live action, making the character more believable. Even better, Dafoe channels his puckish qualities into the demon, playing him not just as a bringer of death but also as a figure of anarchy who sees all these humans as little more than toys.
18. The Boondock Saints (1999)
For some, The Boondock Saints belongs among the greatest cult films of all time, a hyper-violent story of Irish Catholic vigilantes in Boston. Even those who don’t share the same appreciation for director Troy Duffy’s overheated action flick can appreciate the level of dedication Dafoe brings to his part as the FBI agent hunting down brothers Connor and Murphy MacManus (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus). Even when not donning a wig and a slinky dress to take down a target, Dafoe delivers a dose of crazed energy to the film, destroying Duffy’s sometimes too-serious approach.
19. Inside (2023)
Almost every scene in Inside features Willem Dafoe playing an art thief called Nemo, and nobody else. Nemo has devoted his life to art, which drove him to break into a high-tech penthouse in search of a valuable self-portrait. Nemo fails to find his desired piece, but he does find himself trapped inside the apartment, stuck by himself with an impressive collection. Director Vasilis Katsoupis and writer Ben Hopkins run out of anything interesting to say long before Inside finishes its 105-minute runtime. Still, Dafoe gives a committed performance as a man going mad for the things he loves.
20. The Loveless (1981)
Few would count The Loveless among their favorite Kathryn Bigelow movies. Before the Academy Award-winning director went on to make exciting explorations of masculinity, such as Point Break and The Hurt Locker, she and Monty Montgomery made this deconstruction of the biker flick. As a first-time filmmaker, Bigelow veers more to the academic than many would like. However, Dafoe plays a believable, if disturbing, figure, cutting through the high-minded material to disturb the audience.
21. Nightmare Alley (2021)
Like its source material, a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley teems with horrific imagery. Tracing the rise and downfall of a carnival worker and conman (Bradley Cooper), director Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote the script with Kim Morgan, uses circus imagery to intensify the morality tale. In a small but crucial role, as carnival owner Clem Hartley, Dafoe gets to be the harbinger of doom, warning Cooper’s Stan Carlisle of the fate that awaits him and delighting when the brash young man does it anyway.
22. Body of Evidence (1992)
In Body of Evidence, Dafoe plays a detective investigating Madonna. Sure, there’s more to this thriller from director Uli Edel and writer Brad Mirman, which stars Dafoe as lawyer Frank Dulaney, who agrees to defend Rebecca Carlson (Madonna) after the death of her elderly husband. But the movie bumbles through the legal thriller aspects, slowing down only for love scenes between the leads. The sadomasochism that shocked the movie’s first viewers no longer has the same impact (not after Antichrist, anyway), but Dafoe still makes for a great thriller protagonist.
23. Flight of the Intruder (1991)
Dafoe has depicted a surprising amount of authority figures across his career, tough-guy cops and soldiers. But few have been as entertaining as Lieutenant Commander Cole from the fighter jet picture Flight of the Intruder. Written by Robert Dillon and David Shaber, and directed by John Milius, Flight of the Intruder has all the masculine tropes that one would expect from that creative team. However, the real joy of the film comes in Dafoe’s portrayal as a maverick pilot, one whose reckless actions threaten to plunge the nation into war. Where others would have played Cole as a principled warrior fighting for freedom, Dafoe leans into the absurdity of the plot and transforms it into a wacky war picture.
24. Ripley Under Ground (2005)
If the Roger Spottiswoode adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground fails to live up to its predecessor The Talented Mr. Ripley (and it does), don’t blame Willem Dafoe. Dafoe has a small, but crucial, part as an art dealer whose murder draws attention to Tom Ripley (Barry Pepper) masquerading as an up-and-coming painter. Spottiswoode can’t balance the film’s slick European thriller trappings with arch comedy that Claire Forlani and Alan Cumming seem to be in, squandering a solid script by W. Blake Herron and Donald Westlake. But Dafoe manages to walk that line during his few scenes, hinting at a much better Ripley film than the one we have here.
25. At Eternity’s Gate (2018)
Despite what internet memes might have you believe, At Eternity’s Gate is a traditional biopic. Yes, director Julian Schnabel does use fish-eye lenses and hand-held camera shots to give his Vincent Van Gogh story some visual flourishes, making for images that people mock on social media. But most of At Eternity’s Gate follows the known beats of Van Gogh’s life. Whatever the shortcomings in the script by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carrière, and Louise Kugelberg, Dafoe’s performance deserves attention. Dafoe plays the sweetness and vulnerability of the doomed painter, never slipping into parody and connecting the audience with his plight.
Greensboro, North Carolina resident Joe George writes for Den of Geek, Sojourners Magazine, The Progressive, Think Christian, and elsewhere. Joe's areas of geek expertise include horror, science fiction (especially Star Trek), movies of the 60s and 70s, and all things superheroes. He posts nonsense from @jageorgeii on Twitter and from @joewriteswords on literally every other social media site in the world.