Best Willem Dafoe Villains: From Green Goblin to Bobby Peru


Willem Dafoe is at his best when he is playing villains. Throughout the years, directors and producers have taken advantage of Dafoe’s nefarious acting abilities to craft memorable works of cinema. Whether he is playing a criminal, cop, or a more straightforwardly unhinged individual, casting Dafoe as an antagonist always feels like it makes the stakes a little bit higher. Here are several of Dafoe’s most notable roles as the foe.

Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart (1990)
Wild at Heart by David Lynch is a film that shows the dark and violent side of American life. Dafoe plays a horrific robber named Bobby Peru who the main characters Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) join while on the lam. Unfortunately, this deranged criminal is not friendly. All his scenes are memorably off-putting, owed largely to Dafoe’s performance. Even though most of his actions are horrendous, namely attempted rape and murder, Dafoe’s performance made these actions undoubtedly more terrifying. He also sports a greasy pencil-thin mustache and rotting teeth that make him look like a horrifying amalgamation of Steve Buscemi and John Waters, a heavenly match for the likeness of Peru. Wonderful performances imbue this Lynchian road trip film with life.

Paul Smecker in Boondock Saints (1999)
While more of an anti-hero than a true villain, this role deserves a mention because Dafoe does a great job as a foil to the protagonists, who are anti-heroes themselves. Boondock Saints is a hilarious action-packed film in which brothers Connor and Murphy MacManus take the law into their own hands, portrayed by Sean Patrick Flannery and Norman Reedus. Dafoe plays FBI Special Agent Paul Smecker, tasked with finding the vigilante responsible for a string of murders. Some fantastic moments include his visit with a priest at the confession booth, internalized homophobia directed at his lovers or patrons at his favorite gay bar, and his fieldwork, which consists of listening to classical music while attempting to recreate crime scenes in his head. He toils with a major theme in the film, the blurred lines between good and evil. He is a fantastic choice for a villain, making you sometimes hopeful that he succeeds and the eponymous Saints angelic crime-spree will end. Also, the payoff that comes with his character’s development, which will not be spoiled here, is highly satisfying.

Gas in eXistenZ (1999)
In this sci-fi horror about simulation and virtual reality, Dafoe plays a minor villain who agrees to help the film’s main characters, a gamer played by Jude Law and a game designer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, before turning on them to claim a bounty that anti-virtual reality Realists have placed on the designer’s head. eXistenZ is a David Cronenberg film, yet the practical effect of casting harsh shadows on Willem Dafoe’s face stands out among all the fantastical Cronenberg inventions on set. While Gas is only a minor role in this sci-fi horror epic, Dafoe’s half-obscured menacing face is unforgettable. Gas also fits into the film’s themes of reality not being what it seems, though in the very straightforward sense of a personal betrayal. The rest of the film deals with the blurry lines between virtual reality and…what’s the word for real reality?

Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalized account of what happened on the set of Nosferatu. Dafoe plays Max Schreck, who is the actor that plays Count Orlok in Nosferatu. His portrayal as a character actor who drinks blood and assaults fellow actors is frightening enough to make one wonder whether Dafoe was equally as terrifying on the set of this film. His portrayal of Max Schreck is uncanny, both as a standalone performance and also in how perfectly Dafoe revives and conveys the character of Count Orlok. This portrayal of a character actor also netted Dafoe his second nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, though, like Schreck as Count Orlok, he clearly steals the show and is remembered as the film’s star.

Detective Donald Kimball in American Psycho (2002)
Like with Boondock Saints, American Psycho finds Dafoe cast across from a criminal as NYPD Detective Donald Kimball. Again, he plays the foil to the much more nefarious protagonist, but he feels like a villain as the story is told through Patrick Bateman’s (Christian Bale) eyes. Unlike Boondock Saints, however, audiences will not find themselves sympathetic to Bateman’s crime spree, outside of relating to the malaise he is experiencing as a successful American that feels without purpose. That said, it is almost impossible to tell how close to catching Bateman Kimball is at any moment. This is partially due to a creative choice on director Mary Harron’s part, executed beautifully by Dafoe: she had him do three separate takes for each scene, one in which he knew Bateman was guilty, one in which he had no idea, and one in which he was somewhat suspicious but uncertain. Then, she spliced all the takes together in editing to create the jumpy and unpredictable feeling that characterizes Donald Kimball’s interviews with Patrick Bateman.

The Green Goblin in Spider-Man (2002)
This Sam Raimi classic is the first thing that comes to mind for many when thinking of Dafoe villain roles. He is genuine nightmare fuel whether his mask is on or he is playing his alter ego Norman Osborne and descending into madness. Raimi loves the mad villain archetype, choosing to imbue all the villains in his trilogy with a touch of insanity. Dafoe is a great choice for this role, making you internally scream “get out” whenever Peter Parker (Toby Maguire) is visiting the Osborne residence to hang out with Harry (James Franco).

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