I wasn’t bored all the time. Half the time I was asleep.
January is notorious for being a dry month release-wise. Hardly anything new comes into theatres and the pickings are slim to none. The only good thing about going to the movies in January is that following the announcement of Oscar nominations, the theatres have more showings of nominated movies that you might have missed, but now have interest in. This is how I ended up seeing At Eternity’s Gate (2018), the Vincent van Gogh biopic for which Willem Dafoe is nominated for Best Actor.
Chronicling the final years of the painter’s life, At Eternity’s Gate follows van Gogh as he travels from Paris to a small village in the French countryside to work on his art. That’s it. That’s the entire movie. I wish I were being hyperbolic but literally nothing else happens. During the nearly two-hour runtime, audiences are subjected to multiple scenes of painting, van Gogh walking in nature, and extreme and unnecessary close-ups of each character. You guys, after only about 20 minutes I decided that I found this movie utterly insufferable, an opinion that the movie was unable to change.
At Eternity’s Gate is pretentious and boring. It’s clear that director Julian Schnabel was attempting to make a fascinating and introspective look at one of history’s most celebrated artists, and I’d say he only half-succeeds. You would think that having van Gogh in every scene would adhere us to him, providing insight into his personal life, but no. Even when alone all we get are shots of van Gogh painting. Multiple times I felt like I should have cared more about van Gogh’s struggles but I just couldn’t do it. I think Schnabel was banking on name recognition alone to generate interest, but you need so much more than that. You have to earn the audience’s admiration for and interest in the character, and that simply doesn’t happen. Interestingly enough, his drinking problem is mentioned several times, but not once do we ever get a shot of him taking a drink. Exploring that side of the famed artist would have been fascinating to explore, but the movie ignores it for even more shots of silent painting and walking through fields of wheat. I’m warning you now, I’m not nearly close to ending my rant on the abundance of walking through nature.
I can forgive the amount of time dedicated to painting considering whom this biopic is about, but the multiple scenes of van Gogh walking and standing in nature were simply egregious. Even more so considering that they always occurred during long stretches of time where there wasn’t any dialogue, leaving you to contemplate whether or not you had time to leave the theatre and ask for a refund. Sidenote, I became so bored with this movie, that I had zero qualms about leaving in the middle to use the bathroom, something I NEVER do when reviewing. When I returned to my seat, van Gogh was STILL stumbling through nature. Honestly, it got to the point where if I saw one more shot of fucking wheat gently blowing in the breeze, I was going to start throwing things at the screen.
As van Gogh, Dafoe turns in a very solid performance, bolstered by how greatly he resembles the iconic artist. Really, his performance is a great character study more than anything. Dafoe does his best to generate interest in the character and several times you’ll find yourself being drawn in and wondering what makes him so neurotic, then the movie abandons any semblance of an interesting storyline for more silent painting and nature-strolling. Dafoe’s performance is perfectly fine, but unless the Academy recognizes achievement in fake artistry and cardio, I fail to see what makes Dafoe’s an award-worthy performance.
In all fairness, the cinematography in At Eternity’s Gate is stunning, and no surprise given its subject matter, but the use of light and colour are vibrant and astounding. From a technical, filmmaking standpoint, I can definitely see why this is a good movie. However, I am not a filmmaker. I am an everyday movie-goer who has vowed to call movies like I see them, and what I saw was a beautifully-made but tragically dull movie. You know what this movie really reminded me of? The type of movie your high school art teacher throws on because they’re just not in the mood to teach.
At Eternity’s Gate manages to hit the high points of van Gogh’s final years but fails to do so in a way that generates any intrigue. Speaking of his final years, I can’t tell you how genuinely thrilled I was when van Gogh was shot. Giddily I thought to myself, “yay, he’s going to die! The movie will be over soon!” What can I say? I’m not refined.
I can only recommend this movie if you are a fan of art or van Gogh. If so, you’ll undoubtedly find this movie enjoyable. If you’re not, don’t waste your time. The performances are fine, but the movie is absolutely zero fun and there’s nothing of interest to keep you entertained. I myself wished I had brought popcorn before going in just so I’d have something to do during the movie. If nothing else, at least you can fill time by asking yourself, “did the director intend for Oscar Isaac to look like he’s going to Coachella?”
Will you see At Eternity’s Gate? Are you a fan of art?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!