Willem Dafoe is a tour de force in ‘At Eternity’s Gate’

Choppy, euphoric presentation gives snapshots of mental illness


Willem Dafoe's masterful portrayal of Vincent van Gogh's tortured last years makes the messiness of "At Eternity's Gate" merited.

Courtesy CBS Films

When first watching “At Eternity’s Gate,” which showed at the Virginia Film Festival Friday, Nov. 2, uncertainty clouds the audience with confusion.  Each choice made by the director was meticulous in drawing from van Gogh’s disputed mental illness, yet the film never explicitly states or eludes to that stylistic choice. Only after doing some background research and processing what viewers have watched can one truly appreciate what is trying to be accomplished. That being said, the film is truly fantastic when it comes to portraying aspects of mental illness. 

Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) is known as one of the most iconic post-impressionists in the world. Although his art has been seen by millions over the course of a century, little is known about his personal life and his final years. Everything about his life is questioned — his art, mental state and the circumstances surrounding his death.

Historians believe that van Gogh had severe mental health problems. What specifically he suffered from is unknown, but speculation has varied from substance abuse, depression or other severe psychiatric illnesses. 

Knowing this, the film makes much more sense. Its main fault is the assumption that viewers will know details of van Gogh's life, including his alleged mental illness. Once this is clear, the pieces of "At Eternity's Gate" start to come together.

This film becomes captivating and inspiring after sitting down and thinking about the story in its entirety. All details mean something, even if some seem trivial. 

Having a mental illness can be sporadic. Bipolar disorder is like a roller coaster. Some parts of the week can be so high up that one feels on top of the world and can accomplish anything. Other parts can put one in the deepest, darkest mental corners, questioning intimate details of the psyche. 

With many mental illnesses, questioning the decisions, the roles and the people one surrounds themselves with is common. Van Gogh, as depicted by Dafoe, does this throughout the film and speaks to the audience as if the viewers are merely figments of his mind. The way the mind thinks with mental illness can affect all aspects of life. Some suggest that van Gogh’s art was enhanced because of his alleged substance abuse and mental illness. However, these habits affect his relationships with people around him. Throughout the film, these habits make him feel distant from some, and they also make him misjudge his dynamic with loved ones. 

The team behind “At Eternity’s Gate” made particular decisions that contribute to a journey through the experience of someone with a mental illness. Dafoe’s acting, the music choice and the cinematography are all referring to mental illness and van Gogh’s art. 

Dafoe emulates a great representation of what mental illness could be, given what is known and debated about the artist’s life. His utterances are all over the place. At points, the screen will go to black as van Gogh speaks to himself debating, questioning or justifying things that he is doing. Although these blackouts are directorial choices, Dafoe’s delivery complements the style. It is hard to properly and eloquently represent someone with a mental illness, and Dafoe does this with perfection. 

The music is also quite astounding. Volumes fluctuate and dilute. Sometimes the music gets so loud that it overwhelms one’s ears and one might wish to take the remote and turn the film down. That is what it is like with several mental illnesses. Suppressing bright or dark thoughts is nearly impossible. Many can’t imagine that feeling, yet are thrown into that mindset.  

Cameras are used to highlight something or to pull viewers into the world depicted on-screen. “At Eternity’s Gate” takes its camera and throws it around. The audience is spun in the air and taken for the ride. Through the camera work and the editing, viewers are given bright colors and a tornado of emotions.  

This film is a great start to depicting mental illness. Van Gogh’s mental state is debatable — a modern depiction would connect viewers better and only the most extreme types of mental illness are explored. The task of exploring these illnesses starts with connecting people to faces. People need a connection to help one comprehend the severity and complexities of mental illness. 

Humanizing the people who suffer from mental illness and sharing that it is not people going crazy is the next step for modern society. “At Eternity’s Gate” gives a depiction of the final years of van Gogh and what dealing with a mental illness may involve. Those who suffer from mental illness can hope that people will become more educated and more understanding. Movies like this are a step forward. 

related stories