Movie Review: At Eternity’s Gate

Director: Julian Schnabel

Stars: Willem DafoeRupert FriendOscar Isaac

by Jason Koenigsberg

You should see Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. Notice I said AS  Van Gogh, not IS Van Gogh. He is approximately twice the age of Van Gogh when he died. But that should not be counted against him. He was offered a lead role playing a historical icon in the art world and accepted with hopes of earning his fourth Oscar nomination in an awards-bait biopic. Dafoe is an eccentric performer onscreen and he does not disappoint here. At Eternity’s Gate works because of Dafoe’s stellar performance and the films vibrant cinematography that practically recreates Van Gogh’s bright colors. At times the movie feels like a Van Gogh painting come to life. 

The film opens up with a black screen and Willem Dafoe narration describing how lonely his life is and how much he longs for a connection. Then it cuts right to a wide shot of a beautiful sunset. The camera tilts to the right and reveals a woman standing under a lone tree with some sheep. The camera moves over to her and we hear Dafoe’s voice asking to paint her. Right away this establishes that At Eternity’s Gate will be entirely from Van Gogh’s point of view. 

Characters come in and out of Van Gogh’s life and they are played by some very talented European actors such as Emmanuelle Seigner, Mads Mikkelsen, and Mathieu Almaric. But they are all in either one scene roles or fleeting moments in Van Gogh’s life to try and establish his mindset of loneliness as a tortured soul. Only his friendship with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) have any notable impact on Van Gogh’s life and art. 

A lot of the scenes of broad sunsets and gorgeous backdrops are accompanied by a score made up of slow piano and strings and flow seamlessly from one shot to the next. At Eternity’s Gate reflects Van Gogh’s mental anguish in an artistic way with the use of repetition of lines and images so the viewer can get inside his head and attempt to comprehend the way he may have perceived the people around him. The pacing is a little slow at times but At Eternity’s Gate is so interesting visually that it makes up for some of the slower parts by always giving the audience something to look at. There is an abundance of shots of Van Gogh walking away or towards the horizon which ties into the meaning of the title. Director Julian Schnabel also incorporates a lot of close-ups with actors speaking directly into the camera, further establishing that At Eternity’s Gate is meant to be completely from Van Gogh’s point of view.

This is not a great film about an artist like Ed Harris’ Pollock (2000), but a very good picture that is worth seeing for a terrific performance by Willem Dafoe and gorgeous cinematography. At Eternity’s Gate captures the end of Van Gogh’s life which is a time shrouded by mystery. Historians may not be certain what Van Gogh was living through at this point, and he may not have known either. It is an interesting exploration of one of the most famous tortured artists the world has ever known. 

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