With Sam Rockwell firmly in the awards frame for Three Billboards, we thought it was as good a time as any to take a look at some of our favourite films of his. Join us as we discuss Lawn Dogs, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Matchstick Men, Choke, Moon, and Seven Psychopaths.
So, on looking back at Rockwell’s career, it seemed like it would be a good idea to review the film that brought him to the attention of many of the Indy film and indeed Hollywood types that would cast him in a variety of supporting roles over the next few decades, even if this movie itself is fairly obscure. My rationale for saying that being limited entirely to me not having heard of it before researching this podcast. However, the capsule review of “lower class gardener coming to befriend lonely girl” made it sound like quite the heartwarming, gentle opener for this episode.
It is not.
Rockwell does indeed play a lower class, trailer-dwelling Southern gardener, tending to the lawns of a gated community, Camelot Gardens, to which the Stockard family have recently. 10-year-old Devon Stockard (Mischa Barton) seems, perhaps, to struggle making the friends her parents Morton and Clare (Christopher McDonald and Kathleen Quinlan) so desperately want her to make, but to be honest it seems that Devon is content enough with her vivid imagination.
One day, while venturing outside of Camelot Gardens selling Girl Scout cookies, she comes across Trent Burns (Rockwell)’s trailer and begins to inflict a friendship on him, Trent initially resisting before being won over by her. Trent instructs Devon to keep this friendship a secret, lest he be accused of Woody Allen-ing her.
Meanwhile, the rest of Camelot Gardens has their own things going on. Hooting frat boy Brett (David Barry Gray) is having an affair with Devon’s mother and his mate Sean (Eric Mabius) is making goo-goo eyes at Trent from firmly inside the closet. An initial class-based mistrust blossoms into real problems between Brett and Trent, due to some daft wee kids prank, and, well, before much time has passed, in the interest of avoiding too many spoilers, let’s just say things spiral out of control through a series of misunderstandings, and everyone will wish they’d obeyed some basic handgun safety advice.
It’s an oddly toned film, with the relationship between Devon and Trent having a completely innocent, fairytale-like quality, while everything outside of that narrative aspect is ghastly. An immaculately facaded, white-picket fenced, 60’s Americana thinly layered over the darkness, but there’s some obvious nastiness bubbling away from the very start that eventually takes over the entire plot in a way that, well, didn’t seem all that natural a way to me, but it’s undeniably obvious which way this film is flowing.
Rockwell does well, with a role that could quite easily have headed too far into stereotype, and brings enough nuance and charm to hang the film on. Which is fortunate, as that aside, I’m not sure I liked Lawn Dogs all that much. Not to say I disliked it, but I struggle to get a handle on quite what it’s trying to say. It’s not just a character piece, it does seem to be trying to say something about society here, but its messaging is a little muddled.
Is this about class? Friendship? Paranoia? Prejudice? All of that? None of it? Not sure, and other than the very obvious conclusions – prejudice bad, friendship good – I’m not sure the film itself knows quite what it is reaching for. That’s not enough to make the film a write-off, but it’s enough to stop me unreservedly recommending it. For Rockwell completionists only.
Chuck Barris, creator of some of TV’s most recognisable entertainment formats, has been described as everything from a genius to the reason for society’s steady moral decline. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of that, but what no one has ever described Chuck Barris as, apart from Chuck Barris himself, is a CIA hitman; a claim made in his memoir upon which this, George Clooney’s directorial debut, is based.
The fact that Barris himself admitted this was bullshit as early as 1984 ought not to get in the way of a decent yarn, and this is absolutely a film which might be described as a decent yarn. Sam Rockwell portrays Barris in this whistlestop tour through his “careers” both honest and imagined, charting the highs and lows of his employment with broadcaster ABC as it interweaves with the alternate reality he imagined for himself. Tellingly the cast of Barris’ imagination are at once portrayed as more interesting than those that surround him in his day-to-day life, and the film deals largely with the effect this distraction from reality presumably had in the long term. Characters such as Drew Barrymore’s Penny, fictionalised here as a gestalt analogue for Barris’ wives, are problematic in that they somewhat undermine the juxtaposition of fact vs fiction, but they do serve a useful contrast to the vivid inhabitants of his imagination, such as Rutger Hauer’s Keller; an assassin who likes to pose for photographs with his victims mid strangulation.
I recall being rather enamoured of Confessions upon its release, noting that it demonstrated a Clooney who was adept with offbeat humour and could clearly walk a line between artistry and popularity. Looking back now I see less of that artistry, particularly surprising in that it represents probably one of Charlie Kaufman’s lesser scripts, and indeed I wish it spent a lot more time exploring why Barris became the man he did rather than paying lip service to some back story around his upbringing with an oppressive mother. David O. Russell, reflecting on why he turned down directorial duties perhaps summed it up best when he stated the screenplay was “not about anything but a guy who liked to fuck girls and say that he shot people in the head.”
Fortunately Rockwell’s performance is the one thing which has weathered the best over time. The Barris we see here feels like the perfect fit for Rockwell, at once the entertainer and yet also the sociopath, riding a wave of massive success while at the same time marking the days as he seemingly wills himself to failure both professionally and personally. Such a character is difficult to embellish with empathy, and yet Rockwell does that thing he does so well in making a cocktail of misery so accessible to a general audience, somehow imbuing Barris with a humanity that makes me want to hug him as much as punch him. This is definitely Rockwell’s show, and if for no other reason than his turn here Confessions remains a film worth checking out.
Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men, based on the novel of the same name by Eric Garcia, sees Nicolas Cage play Roy, a Los Angeles con man who makes his living by convincing poor saps that they have won a major award (even better than a lamp), but that they will be liable for tax unless they buy a (massively overpriced) water filter from him. He is aided in this wholesome endeavour by his partner/protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell), who tires of this piecemeal work and nags Roy to work with him on his big con, a job that will net them both substantial sums. Roy resists this until his ordered life is upset by the arrival of his hitherto unknown daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), and deterioration of mental health.
And from which mental illnesses does Roy suffer? It’s not entirely clear, but I think… all of them? He does seem to have been given a veritable smorgasbord of disorders, principally obsessive-compulsive disorder (or at least the Hollywood version of same), as well as probably Tourette’s Syndrome, bipolar disorder and possibly light-sensitivity that makes him… malfunction? Poor Cagebot. There’s also a selection platter of other tics and phobias, and while so many problems for his character does allow Nic Cage to go gloriously FULL CAGE, it does seem to render it nigh-on impossible for Roy to do the job that he does, creating a massive difficulty spike for the suspension of disbelief from the earliest moments.
Matchstick Men is very much one of those films that it pays not to think too much about; that’s not advice that you’ll hear from me very often, and it’s certainly not something that I find easy to do myself, but if you can turn off that part of your brain then there’s a lot to enjoy here, assuming you’re onboard the Nic Cage Crazy Train (and you should be, as it’s a high-octane thrill ride that is often very enjoyable, even in spite of the bees; and certainly much preferable to the “why did he even bother, is this even the real Nic Cage?” non-performance seen in, for instance, Ghost Rider).
And here we come to a problem: while normally I would have little compunction about talking about the details of the plot of a 15-year old film, I’m very reticent to do so in this case as Matchstick Men, I’m sorry to say, does not stand up well to the scrutiny of a repeat viewing. I enjoyed it very much indeed when I saw it in the cinema on its release, but knowing what transpires in the film makes watching it again a considerably more frustrating experience (though by no means devoid of enjoyment), as the plot relies far too heavily on convenience, luck and characters failing to do things that they might reasonably be expected to do. In that regard it puts me very much in mind of David Fincher’s The Game, though it’s not so egregious as that film as at least Matchstick Men doesn’t completely fall apart on its first viewing.
The other problem that Matchstick Men gives me is that, on a Sam Rockwell podcast, it’s quite difficult to talk much about Sam Rockwell in this film. He’s… fine. It’s by no means a bad performance, (and he does get some of the film’s funniest lines) but I’d argue that, of all of the films we’ll talk about today, this is the one in which Rockwell has the least impact. It’s the Nic Cage show for sure, and it’s Alison Lohman, in her role as Roy’s daughter and in their engaging relationship, who shines brightest amongst the rest of the cast.
Ridley Scott’s direction is passable; a few more stylised sequences attempt to convey Roy’s neuroses, and do so reasonably well, but it’s hard to see Scott’s mark much on it otherwise, unless he bears some responsibility for the unnecessary “let’s explain everything that happened” frustration of the film’s finale, or the sentimental coda, though I suspect not as both, especially the latter, scream “test screening”.
In a film about con artists someone is always going to be duped and, done well, it’s usually you. In the better ones, you won’t even mind, and in the best, you can return to the film again and again, and appreciate the craft and cleverness of the plot. Sadly, Matchstick Men is not one of these, but if you can avoid knowing what happens, then it’s definitely worth watching once.
If Fight Club counted down to a millennium that was surely going to mark some kind of profound cultural revolution where the common man would be the one to rise up and collapse skyscrapers, Chuck Palahniuk’s later novel Choke acknowledges that the revolution might not actually happen until that common man gets over his tendency to be a hollow, cynical shit and get his life in order.
Here Rockwell works with director Clark Gregg to embody that novel’s protagonist Victor Mancini – an educational drop-out who now works in character as a guide at a historical replica village. Victor has a number of issues that seem to arise from his uncertainty over who his real father might be. One of those issues is that he is a sex addict. Victor’s mother Ida won’t be helping any time soon, as her dementia renders her unable to recognise her son, let alone reveal to him the secret of his origin story. Oh yes, and in the meantime Ida is kept in comfortable care only by Victor’s propensity to scam the saviours who rescue him when he purposefully chokes himself in restaurants.
A change of medical staff at his mother’s care home puts Victor in touch, literally with Dr Paige Marshall who, while indulging Victor’s baser instincts and thoroughly disrupting his 4 step recovery program, offers the revelation that her research shows Victor is actually the product of a program to clone Jesus from supposed remains of…well…appropriately enough given the circumstances, his penis.
What Palahniuk is trying to say here is a little bit harder to discern than the message of Fight Club, though the two do certainly share more common themes than you might first assume. Unlike Fight Club, however, Choke the movie has aged considerably in the sub-decade time frame since it’s release, certainly given the current climate that has made us re-analyse the male objectification of women, and not at all aided by Michael Fassbender’s harrowing and somewhat less carefree portrayal of crippling sex addiction just two years later in Shame.
Fortunately, again, Rockwell is on great form and worryingly convincing in the role of Vincent, and there’s a great supporting role from Angelica Houston. In the middle of the #MeToo movement, there seems to be something a little sleazy about its approach to sexuality, although that may be viewing through too harsh a lens than it truly deserves. It has its moments, but it’s harder to unreservedly recommend today than on its initial release.
The entertainment industry is a particular bastion of nepotism, and there are plenty of musicians, writers, filmmakers and actors who have benefitted from famous parentage or a bankable name. Some never emerge from that shadow; some eventually make a name for themselves; and some are Frank Stallone. Who Stallone? Yes, exactly. And sometimes someone comes along who goes straight from “oh yeah, he’s just that guy’s kid” to “jings, this guy’s a bit good, ain’t he?” in their very first outing.
One such person is Duncan Jones who, prior to 2009, was known to most people, if he was known at all, as one of those unfortunates whose showbiz parents ought not to have been allowed to name their children because they did it stupidly. But with his film debut Moon, the former Zowie Bowie put all of that behind him and instantly created a name and reputation for himself.
In the year 2035 much of the Earth’s energy problems have been solved by the harvesting of lunar rocks rich in helium-3 (in keeping with the film’s hard sci-fi credentials, this has a basis in scientific fact). Large harvesters strip material from the moon’s surface, which is then processed and shipped back to earth by rocket for use in energy production there. It’s mostly an automated process, but it does require human oversight for maintenance. Enter Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the solitary human on the lunar base, whose only company is the Kevin Spacey voiced robot GERTY and, increasingly, his own voice. Alone on the dark side of the moon, Sam’s solitude is worsened by a chronic long-range communications issue, which means that he only has infrequent, and not in real-time, contact with his wife, Tess, and their infant daughter, Eve.
Approaching the end of his three year contract, Sam begins to have hallucinations. One of these hallucinations causes him to crash his lunar rover into the back of one of the robot harvesters while he is collecting a helium-3 canister. He wakes up shortly thereafter in the base’s infirmary, where GERTY informs him that he had an accident, though Sam is unable to remember any details of what happened. But how did he get back to the base? And what is the conversation he overhears GERTY having with Lunar Industries management about? Aren’t long range communications down? Is everything as it seems?
Well, no, obviously everything is most assuredly not as it seems, something Sam discovers when he recovers the body of himself from the crashed rover. (Unlike Matchstick Men, I have no qualms about talking about Moon‘s ‘reveal’, not least because it’s not really the point of the film, and also because it happens a good 30 minutes earlier in this sub-100 minute film than I had remembered, coming pretty much at the end of the first act).
Sam is a clone, as is Sam, of the original Sam; a series of short-lived, disposable assets created for the purpose of this lighthouse keeper-like job 384,000 km from the next nearest human. As he/they discover more about themselves, their location and their situation, we are prompted to consider themes of individuality, humanity, loneliness and more.
Pretty much the only negatives to Moon are budgetary, and even then they’re fairly minimal; a bit more money and I imagine that GERTY would have moved less jerkily along its track, that sort of thing. It’s really pretty remarkable how good looking a film Jones was able to produce from a shot in only 33 days, with budget of only $5 million (and sadly remarkable, in the bad way, that such a great film only grossed about $10 million).
The film owes a large, and clear, debt to the likes of Silent Running, Dark Star and 2001: A Space Odyssey, amongst others, and many have criticised Moon for being too indebted to its forebears, though I am certainly not one of them; I love its 70s sci-fi aesthetic (and practical model effects), and its harking back to a time when big screen space films had a lot more to say than “the lasers go pew pew, the ship goes bang!” (it’s interesting to note that Moon came out the same year as JJ Abram’s action-heavy Star Trek reboot) while, crucially, being approximately twelvety times more interesting than the snooze-fests that, particularly, 2001 and Silent Running were.
There’s no shortage of things to praise in Moon, from the wonderful sets to the atmosphere, Clint Mansell’s score and Jones’ confident direction, but its trump card is its acting. Aside from videos of Tess (Dominique McElligott) and, briefly, Benedict Wong and Matt Berry as executives, Moon consists of three key performances: Kevin Spacey’s GERTY, whose ambiguous (but not flat or robotic) delivery leaves you uncertain for a long time whether or not it is a malevolent HAL 9000 successor or something else entirely; Sam Rockwell as Sam, and Sam, played by Sam Rockwell.
Rockwell is excellent from the beginning, and he rises to the challenge in the largely single-hander first third. However, it’s in the remainder of the film, where he’s acting against himself, that he’s truly impressive, displaying an incredible range of emotion as well as physical performance. For me Moon is still the highlight of Rockwell’s career, and very much the one film of his that I’d urge anyone interested in him to make sure that they see. He’s awfa good, like.
Colin Farrell’s Marty Faranan is struggling to write his latest screenplay, titled Seven Psychopaths. In fact, he’s currently only got the one of them, and he’s more of a Buddist that a psychopath. His best friend, actor Billy Bickle (Rockwell) gives him a constant stream of encouragement while slandering his girlfriend, suggesting that perhaps the real-life nutter going around killing mid-to-high level members of the Italian-American organised crime syndicate, calling himself the Jack of Diamonds, with a very literal calling card, would be a suitable inclusion.
When not hanging out with his friend, Billy’s out borrowing, or rather kidnapping, dogs from their owners for a while, allowing Christopher Walken’s Hans Kieslowski to return them a few days later when a reward has been posted. The not entirely credible narrative of this film kicks into high gear when they target the dog of another real-life nutter, gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who is very keen to find his dog and those who besmirched him.
There’s more going on in Seven Psychopaths, a lot more, but recapping it soon sounds like a fever dream, so there’s little point telling you more than the basic setup. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, recently of course making waves along with Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, there’s a certain through line between these and In Bruges, although this moves out in a far more self-referential, post-modern direction.
Indeed, it shares at least some DNA with Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, without pushing the boat out quite as far from shore as that did. But there’s similar ideas there – the author self insertion, the metaness of it all, and to be honest, it does a much worse job of it than Jonze did a decade before.
Thankfully, no-one is here for a lesson in film structure. I hope. If you are you’ll be sorely disappointed, but I can cut it an awful lot of slack because it’s so very, very funny. McDonagh’s exchanges are sharply written, and the cast, to a person, delivers them pitch perfectly. There’s perhaps a bit of prior knowledge assumed with the action and buddy-cop films of the eighties and nineties to appreciate some of the humour, but nothing that life won’t already surely have inflicted on you, unless you’re too young to be watching this anyway.
I recall enjoying this greatly at the time, and this first rewatch perhaps makes the structural tricks and postmodern leanings a touch more obvious and grating, but that’s very heavily outweighed by how much I enjoyed the details of the dialog exchanges, and the excellent ensemble performance that Rockwell is a huge part of. I enjoyed this the most of all the films we’ve spoken about today – it’s not the best, in absolute terms – but it’s really entertaining. I like it. Watch it.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at email@example.com. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 10th with another compare and contrast, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.