Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In Character: Sam Rockwell

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.

Five Six Essential Roles
The Green Mile (1999)
Wild Bill
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?”

Made (2001)
Hotel Clerk
In a barely there, but no less brilliant performance, Rockwell shows up briefly as a sensative hotel clerk in Jon Favreau’s hilarious film, Made. For his first scene, Rockwell simply escorts Favreau and Vince Vaughn to their room, then engages in some awkward banter with Vaughn. His second (and final) scene in the film is something so funny, and profoundly insulting (to Rockwell’s character, not to the audience) that I’m having troubling typing this sentence through my laughter.

I simply cannot ruin it here, but trust me, the scene is reason enough to watch this movie.

Heist (2001)
Jimmy Silk
Nailing that Mamet speak for the first (and still only time, unfortunately) Rockwell plays a two-timing, wanna be hustler in the immaculately clever Heist.

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)
Chuck Barris
I’m so glad George Clooney was confident enough to cast Sam Rockwell as the lead in this film, because it perfectly highlights all of Rockwell’s talents. As Chuck Barris, Rockwell is given several chances to flex his extravagate mania, his eternalized turmoil, and his slimy manipulation with unapologetic vigor.

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)
Back when David Gordon Green made great films, he directed this little-seen gem about an alcoholic in recovery (Rockwell) trying to win back the love of his wife. I’m simplifying plot details here, because Snow Angels is far too fine a film to have ruined in a crude plot summary. But just know that the role of Glenn forces Rockwell to go dive deeper into the depths of emotional pain than he ever has.

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.

Moon (2009)
Sam Bell
Discussing a movie as good and as clever as Moon can be rather difficult without giving too much away. There’s a lot going on here, but let me be as discrete as possible and simply say that what Rockwell does with his performance here – with his restraint, power, and tumult – is simply revelatory.

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)
Frank Mercer
An odd choice for his best, possibly, but I simply cannot help myself. I love everything about Rockwell’s Frank Mercer in Ridley Scott’s underrated con man flick. I love the way Frank shovels food into his mouth with little care as to where it lands, or the way he takes off his (clip-on) tie in a moment of frustration, and I especially enjoy the way he enters a crowded nightclub to get the attention of a new mark.

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
In The Assassination of Jesse James
Charlie’s Angels (2000)
Joshua (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Choke (2008)
Frost/Nixon (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Conviction (2010)

Previous installments of In Character include:
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
John Hawkes
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright


  1. A few years ago, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was on TV and I decided to re-watch it having not seen it in years. It's still a fun movie but there was a scene where Splinter is talking to some guys and I was like "Sam Rockwell?"

    I remember that character but for all of those years seeing that movie. I never realized that this young punk is now the actor that is pretty much taking names and kicking ass in films right now.

    Man, he's come along way. I think Moon is his best performance so far.

    The dude should be a movie star right now. Hollywood is wasting all of their time pushing these young little shits who can't act out of their way out of a paper bag and here's this brilliant actor that is still turning out kick-ass performance after another. Give this man a starring vehicle!

    1. I love rewatching older films and seeing a now-famous actor in them, it's so oddly rewarding. Couldn't agree more with you... Rockwell is a young guy with REAL talent, as opposed to most of the big name "A-listers" currently working today. It's a funny little business, that Hollywood.

  2. Damn I was close with my guess of Moon. I have not seen or did not realize that was rockewell in more than half of these films. More films to add to my must watch list, sigh lol

    nice post

    1. Thanks! He's so damn good in Moon, anyone could make a very easy argument that that is his best role. He's really good in all the films mentioned above, check 'em out when you can!

  3. Oh, I really like Rockwell, especially Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Moon. He needs better roles to be honest. Well, that or more leading roles.

    1. He DOES need better roles, for sure. More leading roles from Rockwell... no argument here.

  4. Oh I love Rockwell! The first time I saw him was in Charlie's Angels, and I still really enjoy his performance in that film :P Especially all the dancing.

    I really need to see Moon. My DVD player refused to play it last time.

    I think an actor like Rockwell can truly shine in supporting roles. He's maybe too eccentric for a lead role.

    1. I love when he starts singing Marvin Gaye in Charlie's Angels and you realize he's the bad guy. Cool scene.

      Moon is a great flick, get that ol' DVD player in motion!

      He's definitely an eccentric actor, but I'll take his performances however I can get them, starring or small.

  5. Yes! That's what I'm talking about! Matchstick Men is definitely his best performance. That film as a whole doesn't get enough love. It's a beautiful film, probably Ridley Scott's most assured, heartfelt movie. Love it!

    I really dug his work in Conviction and Moon, as well.

    Despite an impressive body of work, I get the feeling Rockwell is only just getting started.

    1. Another Matchstick Men fan, fucking awesome! I love that movie dude, seriously love it.

      He was really good in Conviction, but I didn't really enjoy that movie at all, which is a shame, given its talented cast.

      Boy, I certainly hope he's only getting started.

  6. matchstick men is one of the few movies where i've left the theatre just deep in thought trying to figure out what just happened.

    1. Which is a very very good thing, in my opinion.

  7. I'm gonna link the shit out of this post. I love Rockwell, I love Matchstick Men, Frost Nixon, Choke, Jesse James....He is such a terrific actor and when I hear he is in a movie it's reason enough for me to watch it. I have yet to see Made and Snow Angels but I really have to watch them soon.

    1. Whoa really? That's so kind of you!! I had no idea you were such a Rockwell nut - I'm right there with you, if I hear he's in a flick, then I'm definitely seeing it.

      He is fucking amazing in Snow Angels. See it asap.

  8. Alex, it's really cool to see Snow Angels in there. Moon and Matchstick Men are also great choices, but I'm not sure he's even been better than he is in David Gordon Green's last dramatic film. Another interesting performance from early in his career is Box of Moonlight. It's a little film and probably wouldn't knock out any of your picks, but it's worth seeing for Rockwell and John Turturro's performances.

    1. It really was a close call between Matchstick Men, Moon and Snow Angels for his best role. I love what he did in Snow Angels - his desperation and overall dread. Box of Moonlight... I'm on it!

  9. I'm feeling pretty stupid right now, as, out of your essential roles, I've only seen Moon and The Green Mile.

    We recently rewatched (most of) Choke, and, while I don't love that film, Rockwell is great, and strangely likeable given his character.

    I think he was up for the role of Iron Man at one point - I think that's how he got involved with the sequel - and I think he would have done a great job. Hopefully he'll get some sort of bigger break to make him more of a household name. He really, really deserves it.

    Excuse me while I go watch Heist.

    1. Ha, hey man, having seen two flicks is better than none! I think I heard at one point that he was up for the lead in Iron Man... that would've been really interesting.

      Heist is bitchin'!

  10. I'm so glad you included Matchstick Men. He and Cage (rare strong work from Cage in a decade or so) are great and I think the film is underrated. Also, he is fantastic in Moon. Probably his best - and one of his few 'lead' roles.

    1. Love this Matchstick Men praise, Cage surely hasn't been as good since. And Moon... such a bitchin flick.

  11. Moon! *fistpump*
    What a guy, great post!

  12. Damn, I am ashamed to say I haven't seen most of these. Moon in particular is one I have been eager to see but just haven't for whatever reason. I will say that I really enjoyed Rockwell in Choke, one of the more underrated comedies to come out in recent years.

    1. Well hey, at least you've seen one! I cannot recommend Moon and Matchstick Men highly enough. Rockwell is so perfect in those.

  13. Like many others, I'll also say that Moon is the best performance I have seen from him. I haven't seen a couple of your choices, though.

    I'd also mention for consideration an early film of his - 1997's Lawn Dogs. He plays a bit of a loser who mows lawns for rich people. Against his better judgment he lets the 10 year old daughter (Mischa Barton) of one of his customers strike up an unlikely friendship with him.

    1. Lawn Dogs sound kinda good, I may have to check that out if I can find it. Early Rockwell is great... he's always been this weird, eccentric little guy, but to see him BEFORE he developed that persona can be really funny.

    2. Lawn Dogs is a really good film and Rockwell is just amazing in it. I'm sure you'll love it :)
      http://www.tubeplus.me/player/312151/Lawn_Dogs/ Here it is online... :)

    3. Nice. Thanks for the link, I'll check it out soon!

  14. GALAXY QUEST! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mXWXwxPtXg

    "Don't open that! It's an alien planet! Is there air? You don't know!"

    But yeah, I love Sam Rockwell. He's always great, whether he's the main focus or not, he makes every he's in better. That's kind of a good definition for a great character actor, actually. :) He was about the only thing that made Iron Man 2 halfway watchable for me.

  15. Haha nice. Ugh, I agree about Iron Man 2... whatta damn bore. Rockwell makes EVERYTHING better.

  16. I loved him in Glory Daze with Ben Affleck. 1994.

  17. Have you seen the masterpiece that is Seven Psychopaths?

    1. I certainly have. Rockwell was easily my favorite part of that film.

  18. Check out his stage scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Amazing….. And for the true fan, check out SAFE MEN it's good fun!!

    1. Safe Men... I'm all over it. Thanks for the recommendation!

  19. Rockwell is one of those actors I get excited to see in a film, even Charlie's Angels. He's a great actor is hasn't gone overboard. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a most excellent film which I feel I can watch at any time. I think his hilarious role in Gentlemen Broncos deserves a mention. The film is beyond odd but I love him in the film. He plays a fictional character in the lead character's book, an weirdo sci-fi saga where he plays two versions of the character and I love it!

    1. I haven't seen Gentlemen Broncos! So I'll have to get on that one ASAP. So glad you're a fan of his work!