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Despite the age gap, Willem Dafoe (63) shines as van Gogh (37 when he died).

“I just want to be one of them,” says Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in the opening voiceover of “At Eternity’s Gate.” That simple expression of longing rings on through the rest of the film, tapping into the isolation and failure (but also the ecstasy) of one of history’s great misunderstood geniuses.

As opposed to a dreary birth-to-death biopic of the famous Dutch painter, “At Eternity’s Gate” takes a loose, subjective approach to its subject. In its refusal to follow a more typical form, the film takes on characteristics of van Gogh’s work itself: Bold colors. Strong, impulsive brushstrokes. A surreal sense of reality.

As directed by Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), “At Eternity’s Gate” isn’t concerned with a forensic account of van Gogh’s life. Its ends are more ineffable than that. The film is nothing less than an attempt to show us the world through the painter’s unmistakable vision of it.

As such, it’s a marvelous feat of empathetic filmmaking. But it’s also, by design, a messy and challenging work.

The film focuses on the last two years of the artist’s life, a highly prolific period he spent mostly in rural France. Despite a sizable age difference — Dafoe is 63, van Gogh was 37 when he died — the actor gives a superb performance.

In the film’s second half, Dafoe captures the agonies of the artist: the madness, the obscurity, the extreme sense of isolation. The scene in which van Gogh attempts to justify to a doctor why he cut off his ear is heartbreakingly effective. Dafoe plays it calm and sounds perfectly rational as he tries to explain reasons that make sense to him alone.

But Dafoe and the movie are at their best when they focus on the pleasures van Gogh took in his art and the natural world, such as when the film goes silent (save for a lovely piano score) and allows its hero to wander the country, looking for inspiration, finding it in dirt.

Here’s a man with a profound connection to nature. He paints the landscapes like he’s running out of time, like the beauty of the world is rapidly receding into the distance and will elude him forever unless he captures it right this instant.

“I’d like to find a new light for paintings we haven’t yet seen,” van Gogh tells his friend and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), shortly before heading to the French countryside.

Though the fresh perspective does wonders for van Gogh’s work, the “darkness and anxiety” that would consume so much of his life soon begin to creep in. He’s blacking out and hearing voices, screaming at schoolchildren and making hasty decisions with the razor. His loving brother Theo (Rupert Friend) does what he can for Vincent, but before long the latter is landed in a dreary asylum cell.

The film does a good job exploring the interweaving threads of its hero’s mental illness and creative genius — how each colored the other and contributed to his status as an outcast.

Beyond Dafoe’s performance, the standout of the film is the filmmaking itself, which is dazzling — when it’s not annoying.

The film uses woozy, handheld camera work to reflect van Gogh’s shaky headspace, often going so far as to slip into full-on first-person perspective. Sometimes the movie goes too far, such as the scene in which the camera tilts a full 90 degrees on its axis just to show us van Gogh taking off his shoes.

But more often than not, the first-person perspective works. Even if (or perhaps especially if) the movie can sometimes feel like a mildly inebriated ad for the Oculus Rift: van Gogh VR. If nothing else, it’s certainly a new way of looking at the man.

Van Gogh may not have been “one of them,” but nearly 130 years after his death, we’re still getting fresh, fascinating insights into an artist who didn’t belong to his time but continues to color our own.

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