Siberia boasts what is perhaps the ultimate Willem Dafoe performance, even if it is more subdued than some of his better-known ones, in that perfects a particular archetype he’s spent several decades crafting—the seeker who confronts the forces of nature on his way towards a violent transfiguration.
In Siberia, which marks Dafoe’s sixth collaboration with writer/director Abel Ferrara, he plays Clint, a quiet loner running a remote mountain top shanty bar in the middle of the harsh Russian tundra and tending to his team of loyal sled dogs. The film has no story in the traditional sense; rather, it is a feature-length fugue composed of surreal episodes that span time, geography, memory, myth and fantasy. We quickly get the sense that what we are actually watching is a dream, one that frequently tips into nightmare territory. One second Cliff will be speaking to a friendly patron, the next he’s being mauled to death by a man-eating bear. The beautiful pregnant woman he shares a tender moment in bed with is suddenly transformed into a withered crone dying from a monstrous miscarriage. The literal ground shifts beneath his feet—his basement transforms into the jagged edge of a mountain cliff; the snowy wasteland surrounding him transforms first into a windswept desert, then a verdant forest.
The film is the latest discursive psychodrama from Ferrara, the rebellious New York auteur whose work, over the course of the last 40 years, has moved from New York grindhouse to the European arthouse, not unlike the man himself. Dafoe first connected with Ferrara on the 1998 cyberpunk-thriller New Rose Hotel and has followed him—literally, with the men living as neighbors in Rome—ever since. (“The minute I’d seen him, I knew this was our kind of guy,” said Ferrara of their introduction.)
Siberia directly descends from the pair’s previous effort, 2020’s Tommaso, in which Dafoe played a character not dissimilar from Ferrara—even if the director denies that it’s based on him—an American independent filmmaker and recovering addict living with his much younger wife and small daughter in Rome (the majority of the film was shot in Ferrara’s actual apartment). Throughout, we see him prepping his next project, a film that will become Siberia, entire scenes of which are described, in detail, through snippets of the script and glimpses at the storyboard.
Because of its immediate connection to Tommaso, it’s tempting to view Siberia as another psychotherapeutic exorcism on the part of Ferrara—no diss here; the man has lived harder than just about any other artist around today, and we are lucky to have him share his fearsome experience with us—but while it is clearly a deeply personal film for him, it often reads more like a symbolic journey through the onscreen life of its leading man.
This is partly the case with Tommaso as well, which features several dream/fantasy sequences in which Dafoe’s character imagines himself as a Christ figure, including ones in which he is arrested by the Carabinieri (the modern day equivalent of Roman Cohars of the New Testament), removes his beating heart from his chest and holds it before a group of apostles, and a climax that sees him crucified before the public. One can’t help but think of similar scenes from Dafoe’s furiously controversial star turn in Martin Scorsese’s—whose New York upbringing, close connection to Italy (particularly its cinema), harrowing personal story of addiction and recovery, and thematic obsessions with organized crime and Catholicism make him and Ferrara true paisanos—The Last Temptation of Christ.
That connection is evident in Siberia as well, particularly in its obsessive examination of the human soul, some of which comes in voice over narration similar to that found throughout Last Temptation. An early scene in which Clint faces off with his dark double inside an ancient cave, as well as one in which he questions a mysterious practitioner of dark magic, recalls that film’s depiction of Christ’s 40-day journey into the wilderness and first temptation by Satan.
For all its connections to Scorsese’s film, Siberia is even more reminiscent of another movie starring Dafoe with Christ in the title: Lars von Trier’s notoriously transgressive Antichrist (2009). Like Scorsese, von Trier’s personal and professional trajectory shares many similarities with Ferrara’s—despite their disparate cultural upbringings and personal worldviews—with both establishing themselves as enfant terrible iconoclasts and sharing histories of substance abuse and depression. Through their work, both have pushed the limits of cinematic depictions of sex and violence in their juxtapositions of the sacred, profane and political. Three years after Ferrara teamed with Dafoe for the apocalypse-as-metaphor-for-personal-crisis drama 4:44 Last Day on Earth, von Trier (who had previously worked with Dafoe on 2005’s Manderlay) blew up the world in Melancholia.
Ferrara’s new film seems to repay the homage, and one can’t help but be reminded of Antichrist, as both feature Dafoe lost within an forsaken stretch of nature haunted by a dark genius loci that manifests in hallucinatory visions of roaming specters, grotesque animal encounters (including some that speak in human tongues), savage violence both real and imagined (both feature graphic images of genital mutilation and mutant childbirth), madness, magic and evil. (Siberia is also frequently reminiscent of von Trier’s last film, the serial killer drama The House that Jack Built, what with its picaresque structure, metanarrative commentary and especially its baroque visual references to the works of Dante, Caravaggio and Bosch.)
Much the same can be said of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, from 2019. Dafoe’s character in that—a drunken, verbose and flatulent sea dog who inflicts his madness and evil upon Robert Pattinson’s hero—is far cry from the tortured protagonists of these other films, but it treads similar ground, as again he plays a character trapped within a liminal space in which nature betrays an antagonistic sentience and reality becomes indistinguishable from dream and fantasy.
At the time of its release, much noise was made over what genre Eggers’ film belonged to, with more than one critic relegating it to the bullshit category of ‘elevated horror’. In fact, the film has far more in common with the classic weird tale, a strain of speculative fiction shaped by writers like Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and especially H.P. Lovecraft, which evokes awe alongside horror by invoking the numinous and the uncanny. The weird tale, in both literature and cinema, often runs parallel to cosmic horror, in which all these films dabble. Cosmic horror isn’t the same thing as outer space horror, although it’s no coincidence that both Siberia and Tommaso feature intense visions of the cosmos in all its terror and wonder similar to those found in the stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the first act of Tree of Life, and Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return.
Dafoe’s turn in The Lighthouse ranks among the top of his many grotesque and frightening performances, but whether he’s playing deranged or stoic, there is no one better suited to these weird reconfigurations of the Man Against Nature narrative. With his harsh but gorgeous bone structure, tall frame and taught physique, his wild, flowing mane and gravelly voice, Dafoe seems as though he’s been carved from the earth itself, and the same features that make him so singular a screen presence also give him a primordial quality that stand him as the perfect everyman for these elemental and expressionist visions.