Sam Rockwell’s Mr. Right (review forthcoming) opened this weekend with very little notice (despite the presence of Anna Kendrick ) and very little by way of box-office (it averaged $714 in 35 theaters). This is not unusual for Sam Rockwell, whose box-office performances over the years can best be described as nil (outside of bit parts in franchise films like Iron Man 2 or Cowboys and Aliens). He’s the kind of actor who chooses films based on scripts and directors instead of choosing based on paychecks. The result is a long career littered with underappreciated greatness. He’s a huge, charismatic dancing fish in the tiny pond of indie cinema.
He’s an actor we all know, but sadly most of his work is ignored, and that’s too bad, because Sam Rockwell rarely makes a bad film. He’s wise in his choice of projects, and he elevates a good movie into a great one.
The average box-office gross of the seven films below is probably somewhere south of $5 million, but every single one of them (plus movies with modest box-office returns like The Way, Way Back and Matchstick Men) are absolutely worth checking out. Call it a movie marathon of Sam Rockwell’s underappreciated greatness.
Snow Angels (Box Office: $402,000) — Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell) are a separated husband and wife who have a toddler daughter. Glenn desperately wants Annie back, but his erratic behavior and inability to hold down a job ensure that, at best, she will only pity him. Arthur (Michael Angarano) is a local high school student whose parents are separating for vague reasons having to do with his father’s emotional distance. Arthur and Annie work at the same restaurant, and she was his babysitter years ago. With the narratives thus linked, director David Gordon Green moves between them. Rockwell is terrific here as an epic loose cannon, binge-drinking to blunt his inner pain and then bloodily boxing a frozen tree trunk when he finds it not blunted enough.
Choke (Box Office: $2.9 million) — Rockwell shines as Victor, crafting him as this sort of endearing lothario. He’s a complete shitheel, an absolutely bitter bastard who manages to come across as a lovable fuckup. Normally, a character who goes around trying to cram his dick in everything always has to be some sort of alpha male. Victor Mancini is a fucker, not a fighter. He oozes charm. He plays wonderfully off of Anjelica Huston’s Ida, who manages to ply more emotions in a single character than most of the other A-list actresses do in their entire careers. She’s loving, but she’s also fierce, and she can convey entire speeches or moments with just her eyes. She does all the heavy lifting in her scenes with Rockwell, which makes us understand why a man who doesn’t care about anything would bring canneloni to his bedridden mother even when she thinks he’s someone else.
Conviction (Box Office: $7.4 million) — Based on a true story, Conviction is about a working mother (Hillary Swank) who puts herself through law school in an effort to represent her brother (Rockwell), who has been wrongfully convicted of murder and has exhausted his chances to appeal his conviction through public defenders. It’s not a movie that should work, but it does because of the performances, especially that of Rockwell. Conviction is not even the “performance of his career,” because Rockwell is always amazing. He could rap with the fucking Chipmunks in the Threesqueak or whatever they call it, and he’d still be astonishing. As Kenny Waters, he’s so charismatic, I beg women to take precautions before watching the films because you might get pregnant. I had to piss on a stick when I got home just to double check. He’s hitting the highs and lows like that pre-Avatar opera singer in The Fifth Element. You want him out of jail. The bond between Kenny and Betty Anne in the film is the stuff that earns you gold.
Moon (Box Office: $5.8 million) — A film like this, with essentially a cast of one, obviously relies heavily on the performance of that sole actor, and the premise sets up Sam Rockwell with the opportunity to deliver a great performance (or performances, if you will). And he knocks it out of the park — from the earlier part of the film, focused on Sam’s utter solitude and possible mental cracking, to the later exploration of individuality, Rockwell is simply a joy to watch. He manages to make each Sam Bell a distinct and interesting character (though the characterizations are largely driven by the ultimate why’s and how’s of the two of them both being there). In a just world, Rockwell would see some award nominations from this performance, but we all know how this game goes.
Seven Psychopaths (Box Office: $16 million) — The film is built on the foundation of Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, and Christopher Walken, and they are collectively and individually perfect. I’m convinced that McDonagh has a gift when it comes to Farrell, as he’s coaxed out the two best performances of his career. Farrell is tired and listless and frustrated and furious, and he fluidly navigates those emotions seamlessly. Rockwell is an absolute lunatic, the crazy friend that you almost wish wasn’t your friend. He’s (unsurprisingly) the comic gem of the film, yet also speaks with such a painful earnestness that you want to pat his head a little. Walken, as the beguiling yet bewildered, cravat-wearing philosopher is, despite that odd grouping of descriptors, surprisingly subdued, with marvelous effect.
A Single Shot (Box Office: $20,000) — Sam Rockwell anchors the film as John Moon, a broke hunter and farmer living alone in a trailer on the outskirts of a generic blue-collar town in the northern midwest. At the start of the film, he’s out hunting deer (despite having been busted for poaching multiple times) when he takes a shot at some blurry movement in the woods. When he gets closer, he realizes he’s shot and killed a woman. He deduces murkily that she must be from a nearby camp, and when he takes her corpse there, he discovers a lockbox full of thousands of dollars. This is the first of many crossroads where John takes the worst path available to him: he covers the body in a sheet, absconds with the cash, and acts as if nothing happened … A Single Shot is a grim, taut, absorbing thriller. Directed by David M. Rosenthal from a script by Matthew F. Jones (adapting his novel), the film starts with a standard wrong-guy-wrong-place-wrong-time mishap and gradually but inexorably slides into chaos and paranoia.
Laggies (Box Office: $1.1 million) — This Lynn Shelton movie attempts a kind of gender-reversed man-child with Keira Knightley in the lead, and she’s incredible as a woman trapped between youth and adulthood. The pull of nostalgia and loyalty keeps her trapped in her suburban past, but the lure of Sam Rockwell — and his divorced dad character — gently pushes her into adulthood, even if it means essentially breaking up with all of her high school friends. If you love Rockwell (and Ellie Kemper), Laggies is a perfect heartwarming, well-acted, lounge on the couch on a lazy Saturday afternoon kind of movie.