Opus Zero review – Willem Dafoe's no Columbo in auteurist mystery

Dafoe adds watchability in this story of a composer obsessed with a long-ago disappearance, but this arthouse drama feels like a misstep

There is a halo effect created by Willem Dafoe’s weathered features: those cliff-edge cheekbones perched above carved-out hollows instantly confer fierceness and depth of soul to whatever role he is playing. Dafoe’s face certainly adds watchability to this slow-going and precious arthouse drama, in which he plays an American visiting a dusty Mexican town to sift through his late father’s belongings. The film is directed with auteurist ambition by Daniel Graham and produced by the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas.

Dafoe is Paul, a composer struggling to complete an unfinished symphony by a long-dead genius. “I’ve laid down my tools. They’ve become dull,” he tells an old friend of his father, the elderly Zero (Brontis Jodorowsky). In this film’s characteristic style, the two men don’t so much talk as philosophise exhaustingly at great length. Clearing out his dad’s flat, Paul finds a photograph of a young woman who disappeared from the town decades earlier. He decides to investigate, though clearly he’s no Columbo; chatting to the local priest he is distracted by a theological tussle on the decline of Catholicism in Mexico.

Dafoe is barely on screen during the second half, when a film-making crew arrives in town to shoot footage for a documentary. “I want to film real-life as it happens,” declares the director. The locals are baffled at being stopped in the street carrying their shopping and instructed to “act naturally”. The director blunders into these encounters, walking away with no useable footage.

Opus Zero’s two strands come together unsatisfactorily at the end when Paul is interviewed on camera about the elusive nature of inspiration, impishly giving the director the philosophical run-around. Dafoe is a fine actor, and his willingness to leave his comfort zone is admirable, but this feels like a misstep.

• Opus Zero is released in the UK on 9 August.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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