Despite all of the great performers who have impressed us over the years, there is one man who symbolizes the true spirit of memorable character acting. That man is Sam Rockwell: an actor for the ages.
With over two decades in the industry, Sam Rockwell has dipped his toes into virtually every genre of film imaginable. The most impressive aspect of this achievement is how adept he is at comprehending each character, while still leaving himself room to stamp his own unique signature on the performance. It’s astonishing and remarkable to watch him lose himself in a role, and for that we take our hats off to him. We’ve chosen six films that we believe are the actor’s most career-defining contributions to cinema, and you can offer up your own in the comments below. Let’s get started.
6. THE WAY WAY BACK
We begin our journey with one of Mr. Rockwell’s most recent performances, the indie coming-of-age comedy The Way Way Back. In the film, Rockwell plays Owen, the manager of a Cape Cod water park called “Water Wizz”. He’s an aimless man-child who reluctantly hires a melancholy 14 year-old named Duncan, who is staying on the cape with his mother and her overbearing, sleazy boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Sensing that the boy is in need of a father figure, Owen takes him under his wing and provides Duncan with a brief escape from a life that isn’t so happy.
Although it may not be one of his most well-known roles yet, The Way Way Back allows Rockwell to play one of his most realistically-flawed characters to date. He is able to show his soft side, a paternal instinct that he hasn’t really exhibited in any of his prior films. Owen is a sweet guy, but his complacency stymies his ability to grow into adulthood. We’ve all met somebody like Owen. They have a heart of gold, but they’re more willing to help others than they are themselves. Rockwell’s gleeful exuberance is a perfect match for the character, and it’s used to great affect. Somehow, even in the funniest scenes, there is a sense of some lingering sadness in Owen’s eyes. It’s a true gem. Worth seeing if you haven’t already.
5. SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS
Writer/Director Martin McDonagh struck gold with an odd, yet endlessly entertaining film called Seven Psychopaths back in 2012. The film tells the tale of stuggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) who finds himself pursued by a vicious gangster (Woody Harrelson) when his con-artist pals Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken) kidnap the gangster’s beloved dog. Soon, the three friends find themselves on the run, and Marty finds out that his friends are more dangerous than he realized.
I can not sufficiently articulate the love I have for this movie, but I know one of the primary reasons is Sam Rockwell. As always, he plays a character who is slightly unhinged, traversing that fine line that separates good men and criminals. Billy doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation they’re in, partly because he’s indifferent to violence (a revelation that makes more sense as the film progresses). Martin McDonagh likely saw the potential when casting Rockwell as the duplicitous Billy. Add to the fact that Rockwell plays opposite another notorious scenery-chewer in Christopher Walken, and you’ve got comedic gold. See this film.
Though it wasn’t very well-regarded by most critics, Clark Gregg’s adapation of the novel Choke by Chuck Palahniuk isn’t a bad movie at all. In fact, the one thing that keeps it from slipping into obscurity is (recurring theme) Sam Rockwell.
Choke tells the tale of Victor Mancini (Rockwell), a con-artist who curries sympathy and money from restaurant patrons by pretending to choke on his food. He works a day job at a colonial theme park and uses his money from conning people to pay hospital bills for his mother (Anjelica Huston) who is stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease, while also dealing with the fact that he is a sex addict.
Leave it to Sam Rockwell to find empathy in a morally-bankrupt sleaze like Victor Mancini. The role is a slippery-slope, as most people wouldn’t dare admit that they sense an undercurrent of kindness in a character like Victor, but somehow Rockwell manages to pull it off. It also illustrates one of Rockwell’s more competitive advantages — this isn’t the first time he’s played a scumbag. No matter what kind of half-baked scheme, or societal faux-pas his character may commit, there exists a likability that is undeniable. Is it his intention to be inherently charming? I certainly can’t tell, but having read the book and seen the movie, I can think of no other actor who could possibly play the role. Add this one to your “rainy-day” watching list.
3. THE GREEN MILE
Rockwell got a chance to play to his most intense strengths when he nabbed the role of “Wild Bill” Wharton in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile back in 1999.
“Wild Bill” is a dangerous psychopathic killer who is sentenced to Death Row for murdering several people during a robbery. He’s a mercurial madman, prone to random acts of violence who boasts about his killer instinct and indifference toward his victims. It’s one of the best antagonists that Rockwell has every played, and his presence is chilling. It’s a character that embodies evil, opposite a cast that includes the late Michael Clarke Duncan and Oscar-winner Tom Hanks.
Superficially, Rockwell was a perfect choice for this character. He’s not physically imposing per se, but as I stated before, he is intrinsically unpredictable. Casting a mad man can be hard work for any director, but Darabont spotted the value that Rockwell brings to the table. He more than makes up for what he lacks on the outside by projecting an unsettling quality here that draws you in and repulses you simultaneously. Every movie needs a villain, and here, Rockwell delivers.
2. CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND
Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind was Oscar-winner George Clooney’s first venture into directing. He chose to tell the story of “Gong Show” host and producer Chuck Barris, who would eventually allege that he was a contract killer for the Central Intelligence Agency. It was a revelation that left many to question his sanity, and the reclusive Barris still maintains this story today.
Clooney cast Sam Rockwell as Barris, and I’m glad he did. It was the first time that the spotlight was directly on Rockwell, and he didn’t disappoint. The film plays out as if Barris’ claims actually occurred, and it splits the film into two narratives. One is a character study about a pioneering television entrepreneur, and the other is an espionage thriller with darkly comedic elements. In less capable hands, this film would have been laughed off. Thankfully, it almost seems plausible with Rockwell in the driver’s seat. He’s marvelous. He essentially gets the chance to play two sides of the same coin – a man split between a successful but predictable life, and one that offers intrigue and excitement. The balancing act is tricky, and the film itself is not regarded as a crowning achievement for Rockwell or Clooney.
Still, in the most mundane scenes, you buy into the tale. Rockwell doesn’t look like a movie star. He looks like a guy we all might know. Maybe he’s a spy. Maybe he’s a producer. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Rockwell lends veracity to a truly unbelievable tale, and he outshines heavyweights like Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, and a Clooney himself who takes on a supporting role in the film. Worth a watch for any true Rockwell fans.
Of all the films that we’ve mentioned on this list, there is one that I think highlights the true genius of Mr. Rockwell’s work. That film is Moon.
The directorial debut of Duncan Jones, Moon tells the story of Sam Bell, an astronaut working on the moon to assist in mining a resource that allows for the continuous flow of energy on Earth. With only the company of his robot assistant GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Sam longs for the day he can return to his wife and daughter. When an accident puts Sam in contact with a person claiming to be him, he learns a shocking and earth-shattering truth that threatens everything he’s ever known.
So much about this performance speaks volumes to the range that Sam Rockwell possesses. I’ve heard him described often as multiple different people embodied in one man. With a stroke of genius, Duncan Jones created a film for an actor to play different versions of himself. It’s astonishing to watch Rockwell in the moments where he is acting with himself. Here we have Sam Bell, a hopeful, gregarious man, eagerly counting down the days when he can return to his family. And over here we have Sam Bell, a cold, dismissive misanthrope whose suspicions may be the only thing that saves them both.
There is a key moment when Sam’s discovery of what awaits him at home forces him to confront a terrible reality that he isn’t ready to accept. The cadence in his voice changes, and the cold despair that takes hold of him will tear your heart right out of your chest. It’s the most emotionally raw moment in this actor’s entire career, and it is devastating. When all is lost, what could you possibly do?
The reaction to this film was extraordinary. It has become a modern science fiction classic and the movie’s fans petitioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to reward Rockwell with a Best Actor nomination. Sadly, or more so criminally, the petition was a bust, and Sam was not nominated. But it introduced him to a new generation of movie-goers who may not have been familiar with him before. We’re seeing him in more prominent roles, where his unique skillset is put to good use. In the end, as long as he’s making movies, we’ll always be watching.