Movie review: 'At Eternity's Gate' shines light on van Gogh

Willem Dafoe is masterful in Julian Schnabel's fascinating look at Vincent van Gogh

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Director Julian Schnabel gets up close with Vincent van Gogh — at times, quite literally — in "At Eternity's Gate," an intimate look at the artist's final years. 

Willem Dafoe in "At Enternity's Gate."

Schnabel uses wobbly, handheld cameras and often pushes them just inches from the face of van Gogh, beautifully played by Willem Dafoe, making for a mesmerizing, deeply personal experience. Where last year's hand painted "Loving Vincent" was technically dazzling, but spiritually shallow, "At Eternity's Gate" is profound on a human level. You'll feel it, you'll taste it, you'll live it. 

"At Eternity's Gate" picks up with van Gogh in his later years — he committed suicide at the age of 37 — and covers his time spent in an asylum, where he was sent for his antisocial behavior. (He was a heavy drinker and had no problem yelling at kids.) But in nature, he finds peace, and he transfers that feeling to the canvas.

The narrative here is rather free; Schnabel isn't interested in the usual biopic beats, and rather than romanticizing his subject, he demystifies him. He gets inside van Gogh's head, behind his eyes, and we see the world as he saw it.

Dafoe adds another masterful performance to his resume; his work here is as deep and as piercing as his performance in "The Last Temptation of Christ" more than 30 years ago.

"I am my paintings," he says, and Dafoe completes the transformation by becoming van Gogh.  

Schnabel, himself a renowned painter who has studied artists on film in the past (see 1996's "Basquiat"), digs deep into the spirit of van Gogh, and van Gogh's spirit shines back. It's a fascinating portrait.


'At Eternity's Gate'


Rated PG-13 for some thematic content

Running time: 111 minutes