Total Recall: Willem Dafoe's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the John Carter star.
It's Taylor Kitsch's handsome mug that's plastered all over the John Carter trailers and posters, but he isn't going to Mars all by his lonesome this weekend -- he's surrounded by a great supporting cast that includes Ciarán Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, Dominic West, and... drum roll, please... two-time Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe, whose appearance as the brave Barsoomian warrior Tars Tarkas was just the excuse we needed to devote this week's list to the critical highlights from one of the more admirably eclectic filmographies among today's working actors. Action blockbusters, dramas, even animation -- as we're about to demonstrate. It's time for Total Recall!
10. Inside Man
On paper, Inside Man didn't look like it'd end up being a critical comeback for director Spike Lee -- a cops 'n' robbers action thriller? Please, those are a dime a dozen -- but thanks to a sharp Russell Gewirtz script and an impressive cast that included Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer, and (of course) Willem Dafoe, it ended up walking away with $88 million at the box office and a healthy 86 percent on the Tomatometer. "As unexpected as some of its plot twists is the fact that this unapologetic genre movie was directed by Spike Lee, who has never sold himself as Mr. Entertainment," admired an appreciative David Ansen of Newsweek. "But here it is, a Spike Lee joint that's downright fun."
Dafoe reunited with his Light Sleeper director Paul Schrader for this searing 1997 drama, which earned James Coburn an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Nick Nolte a Best Actor nomination, and gave Dafoe the rare opportunity to play a sane, stable, rather noble character -- the brother of a small-town policeman (Nolte) whose investigation of a potential murder parallels his mother's death and his re-involvement with his violent, alcoholic father (Coburn). "Schrader seems to understand these characters implicitly," observed the San Francisco Chronicle's Edward Guthmann, "and the result is probably the best film he has directed."
8. The Loveless
After having his part cut from Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate the previous year, Dafoe had to wait until 1982 to make his big-screen debut -- in The Loveless, an indie biker movie written and directed by first-time filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. A somewhat campy homage to the biker flicks of the 1950s, it didn't achieve much in the way of commercial impact, but Dafoe's role as the ringleader of a group of small-town hoods presaged some of his later work as a charismatic villain, and the movie impressed a number of critics, including Time Out, which admitted, "At times the perversely slow beat of each scene can irritate, but that's a reasonable price for the film's super-saturated atmosphere."
Loosely based on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning highlighted ongoing American racial tensions with an engrossing drama that, while it angered some viewers with the way it played fast and loose with certain facts of the incident, still proved a modest box office hit and a seven-time Oscar nominee. Dafoe starred alongside Gene Hackman, the duo portraying a mismatched pair of FBI agents leading the investigation in the backwater Mississippi town where the murders took place -- and although their differing approach to solving a racial hate crime probably raised more questions than it answered, that was more than enough for critics like Rita Kempley of the Washington Post, who wrote, "Mississippi Burning surveys the geography of racism, sheds light on the dark night of the soul."
Three years after he plunged filmgoers into the hell of the Vietnam War with Platoon, Oliver Stone took a look at the war's legacy from another perspective with Born on the Fourth of July. An adaptation of Ron Kovic's book about his experiences as a soldier and a veteran, Fourth provided a showcase for Tom Cruise, who earned a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Kovic, and it reunited Stone with one of his Platoon stars in the bargain: Dafoe appears here as Charlie, a fellow vet who shares a strange, somewhat violent interlude with Kovic in a small Mexican town. "Whether or not you agree with its politics, and it's sure to spark some debate, there's no denying the film's power," argued Chris Hicks of the Deseret News.