The Good, The Bad and The Badass: Sam Rockwell
While he's been kicking around in features for well over twenty years, the first time I really noticed Sam Rockwell was in GALAXY QUEST, where he stole scenes as the crew's disposable “red shirt” character. (literally named "Crewman Guy"). The part that was so well-received it arguably led to his being cast as Chuck Barris in George Clooney's directorial debut, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND. Based on Barris' fake memoirs where he imagined that his time as the host of “The Gong Show” was just a cover for his real job as a CIA assassin, Rockwell had the unenviable task of making his defiantly unlikable “hero” a protagonist you could root for. While the movie never quite broke out, it certainly gave Rockwell a boost, leading to lots of great character parts in movies like MATCHSTICK MEN, THE HITCHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, FROST/NIXON and more.
Arguably, it was Rockwell's turn as the lead in Duncan Jones' MOON which established him as a leading man, and since then Rockwell's had a great deal of success juggling his status as an indie favorite as well as the more conventional lead of movies like this week's POLTERGEIST. Another film that also helped propel Rockwell was the Sundance hit THE WAY WAY BACK, where he plays the goofball owner of a water-park who takes a fatherless teen under his wing and teaches him self-confidence in a way that's neither saccharine nor cynical. That movie contains arguably Rockwell's finest bit of acting ever in a very brief throwaway bit where Steve Carell comes to retrieve the boy that he's put down for most of the film, and for a split second, Rockwell stands between the two, sizing up Carell and giving him a look that says “you're nothing.” I was lucky enough to interview Rockwell a few years ago for SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS and I found him to be an absolutely hilarious, down-to-earth guy and even if POLTERGEIST doesn't feel like the ideal vehicle for his talents, he's someone worth rooting for and always worth watching.
Without a doubt, Rockwell's best all-around work was as the hero in MOON. Playing a moon-base attendant who comes to the mindf**k of a realization that he's no more than a maintenance clone, Rockwell was really surprising in that he was totally subdued and convincing as a kind of every-man hero. As the only actor on-screen for close to two hours, he absolutely commands your attention and probably deserved an Oscar nod, were it not for the fact that the academy notoriously looks down on genre films.
One movie of Rockwell's that I'm absolutely stunned has never really caught on is David Gordon Green's SNOW ANGELS. Thoroughly depressing but a must-see, Rockwell's incredible opposite Kate Beckinsale. He plays her born-again, ex-con husband who struggles to reunite his family even though it puts him on a disastrous collision course with fate. Watching it now, it feels like a precursor to Green's JOE and it's a shame more people haven't heard of it as Rockwell's so terrific in it (as is Beckinsale).
I'd hesitate to call any of Rockwell's performances overrated as he's typically well-deserving of any praise he gets. However, one movie that has a lot of fans in Clark Gregg's adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's CHOKE. Unless you're David Fincher, Palahniuk is notoriously tough to pull off, and considering they were adapting one of his lesser books, Gregg's film was OK I guess. Still, there's something about it that's never worked for me, although Gregg and Rockwell later re-teamed for the far superior TRUST ME.
Martin McDonagh's SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS never really caught on with a mainstream crowd despite the positive reception it got at TIFF in 2012, where many of us thought it would be the film to make Rockwell a real break-out star. Still, the movie is a pretty inspired deconstruction of the Hollywood crime film, and Rockwell's monologue where he imagines a blood-soaked orgy of violence as the most appropriate end to his dog-napping scheme is not only ingenious writing and directing by McDonagh, but a moment that should have become iconic for Rockwell, who gave it his all.
In addition to this week's (perhaps ill-advised) POLTERGEIST remake, Rockwell's got two movies I saw and liked at Sundance ready for release, Jared Hess' DON VERDEAN (review) and Joe Swanberg's DIGGING FOR FIRE (review).
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