I’ve covered some truly fantastic actors since I began In Character last October, but only twice have I had to bend my own rules to include what I felt were the best performances by the actor I was highlighting. I typically chose an actor’s five best roles, then a final one to signify my favorite specific performance. Emily Mortimer and William H. Macy are the only two actors I’ve had to give six essential roles to. Couldn’t find a way around it. Sam Rockwell makes three.
Whether he’s a bug-eyed maniac, a soft-spoken astronaut, or a far-from-slick con man, Sam Rockwell has a power that is rarely matched by other actors of his generation. It’s those expressive eyes. They’re maddening and sad and soft and piercing. The man’s simply got it.
The Green Mile (1999)
Save a few minor bit roles in a handful of films here and there, before The Green Mile, Sam Rockwell was unknown to the film game. I’d be interested to know why Frank Darabont chose him to play the role of psycho killer Wild Bill, but I’d be more interested to know what specific direction Darabont gave Rockwell before filming began.
We typically see this role played one of two ways: reserved, or balls-to-the-wall, go-for-broke, batshit insane. Rockwell obviously did the latter here, and he completely owns it. He holds nothing back, and he made it simply impossible to not leave the theater wondering, “Who the hell was that guy?”
I simply cannot ruin it here, but trust me, the scene is reason enough to watch this movie.
Rockwell is an actor with no shortage of goon characters under his belt, Jimmy Silk being chief among them. He’s a guy that will manipulate anything and anybody just to make it ahead. He knows he has everything planned out perfectly, but we know that he really doesn’t know shit. Besides, any actor who can make a line like, “Hey, I'm as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton,” shine, deserves special recognition.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a very good film, and Rockwell is very good in it. I could make a strong case that Rockwell’s performance here is the best one of his career, but I suppose I could do that with damn near any performance on this list.
Snow Angels (2007)
Glenn is a two-time loser, essentially trying to make good a hustle. He’s a pathetic, desperate man, and Rockwell plays him as such, the result of which is a performance of completely unhinged vulnerability.
When Sam Bell is hit with some unsettling news early in the film, the first instinct for characters in movies similar to Moon would be to deny deny deny. That insistence of denial is one of the qualities I hate most in movies. Moon is too smart for that, so instead, Bell accepts what is happening, and does whatever he can to figure it out. Again, I am seriously simplifying the brilliance Rockwell pulls off here. The film is far better off witnessed in motion than in print.
The Best of the Best
Matchstick Men (2003)
I’m not sure if I’m able to fully express the impact that that one gesture had on me, but here goes. Soon after Klaus Kinski died, Werner Herzog made My Best Fiend, a documentary about their tumultuous working relationship. In My Best Fiend, Herzog explains that he was first taken by Kinski after watching one of Kinski’s films as a child. He said there was a scene in one of Kinski’s films in which the actor awoke from sleeping, and got up and walked away. (For effect, Herzog plays the very brief movie scene three times in a row in My Best Fiend.) Herzog said he couldn’t explain it, and he didn’t anticipate that anyone would understand, but when he saw Kinski make that movement, he knew he had to work with him someday.
That is the exact same feeling I had when watching Rockwell jump down a small flight of stairs when he enters that nightclub. I saw it, and my jaw dropped. Sure, I had already seen Rockwell in The Green Mile, Made, Heist and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and when I saw him jump into that club, I knew that this guy was going to be a fucking star. I suppose I was right.
Other Notable Roles
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
William H. Macy