"Today I learned that there are times when even people who enjoy 'art' films (what sometimes used to be called 'indie') can find them too much and At Eternity's Gate is unfortunately a perfect example. While it's a very worthwhile story and a pretty straightforward biopic on paper, it seems to have been made by someone who drank a bottle of absinthe and wants to fight people while vomiting.
It's not often I would absolutely say that a film was poorly directed, but this one is - at times maddeningly so. The film feels like it was made by a pretentious first year art school film student and the direction seemingly makes every attempt to get in the way of the brilliant costumes, locations, direction and acting. In attempting to make a very arty film about a master painter Vincent Van Gogh, director Julian Schnabel has really treated his audience in the same way Van Gogh's contemporary common people treated him - few understood his work. Unlike Van Gogh, I see little prospect of a posthumous celebration of art that was misunderstood in its time.
The techniques used to illustrate Vincent's growing mania and unique worldview constantly get in the way of the story, the acting and really, any real enjoyment of the film. The cinematography is especially frustrating, VERY handheld, picking angles that don't help the storytelling or characters and constantly distracting the audience's immersion in the story. Editing is brutal and the music and sound FX editing feel like the film is not actually finished.
Which is a pity, as there's a very worthwhile, quite well written story here, and there are moments of brilliance. The main draw is absolutely the performances - they're all top notch. Willem Dafoe is really brilliant here, inhabiting the role completely as Vincent van Gogh, while Rupert Friend is strong as Vincent's brother Theo Van Gogh, Oscar Isaac brings his brooding intensity as Vincent's good friend (and fellow artist) Paul Gauguin & Mads Mikkelsen is seen in an all to brief role as a man of the cloth. They are easily the best part of the film, it's a real pity that so much of the filmmaking gets in the way of their performances.
In some ways, it feels like a filmed stage play, or a film made by a theatre director who's only ever seen moving images at a modern art museum - in no way does this portrait of Vincent's late life in any way get close to really celebrating the great artist in a way that provokes emotion, wonder and opens him up to new audiences and fans. There's a great story here, but it's not in this film."