Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sam Rockwell's performance in "Jesse James" is some kind of a miracle

By Sati. Sunday, February 11, 2018 ,

"There is this thing Sam Rockwell does...." is something that you can say about his every performance. How hilariously his eyes widen when he is displeased as someone is singing terribly during audition in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or when his kid walks in the bedroom killing any hope of him getting to have sex with his wife in Poltergeist. The stutter, which actually happened accidentally in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. His occasionally high pitched voice he uses with such funny effect, for example in Frost/Nixon as shocked and appalled he quotes what Nixon just said "Daddy, you're the finest man I know?!". The way he grabs women by their clothes and pulls them into a kiss (Laggies/Welcome to Collinwood).  Or how he jumps down a small flight of stairs in Matchstick Men.

And the dancing. Always the dancing.


But sometimes, what Rockwell does, can hardly be put into words. It's a small thing here and there. A look, a gesture, something that makes his characters feel distinctive and human. It works particularly well when he is playing vulnerable characters in serious movies. You just instantly feel and care for whoever he is playing. You don't want to see him get hurt.

And no part Riockwell played illustrated that better than his Charley Ford. I recently rewatched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for the first time in years. I only saw it once before and I instantly knew three things - 1. this is a masterpiece 2. I wish the 4h long cut of the film that was screened in Venice was available for all of us to see 3. this is Sam Rockwell's greatest performance.


Since he gave it, Rockwell delivered so much wonderful work, most notably in Moon. But his Charley Ford is still, for me, the most miraculous performance he ever created. Rockwell plays the older brother to Casey Affleck's Robert Ford. While Robert is creepy and makes everyone uneasy, Charley is the good guy and everyone trusts him, seeing how harmless, silly and good-hearted he is.

There is a line in the movie where Jesse describes Charley as very trustworthy but "ugly as sin". You see, most actors are vain - Rockwell isn't. He has no problem making himself look unappealing for a part (apparently all it took for him to look like distraught Chuck Barris in "Confessions..."'s more intense scenes was....eye make up). How many actors can do that? We're not talking purposefully transforming your look. We're talking not caring about what other people think of your appearance. How many of them don't care? He doesn't.

Thing is, though, that Rockwell makes his character here so innocent and vulnerable - you constantly fear for him because he is not a good liar and he isn't ruthless - for me he plays the most beautiful character here. And my heart broke for him increasingly as the film was progressing.


I don't know what it is with this guy, but he also has such an incredible ability with his voice. He can sound incredibly sexy or menacing in some roles and when he chooses to he uses his sweetest, most ridiculous voice like in a scene where Charley desperately tries to lie to Jesse about how he hurt his foot to cover up for the fact Robert shot Jesse's cousin (during the shootout Charley jumped out of the window, injuring himself). Then Charley offers a tale of how Robert idolizes Jesse, he is desperate to say and do anything, to distract Jesse. It's a scene that is filled with tension but you can't help but giggle at the way Rockwell delivers his lines, making Charley such sweet, foolish and very innocent guy.

The thing I admire most about actors is when they can convey so much just with the look on their face. Rockwell has such lovely, sad eyes. And I don't think he ever did more with them than in this film. Take the scene where increasingly unhinged Jesse puts a knife to Robert's neck, then lets him go and starts laughing, playing the whole thing off as a joke. Look at what Rockwell does here:


It's a shot that lasts mere seconds but look how he mixes the real fear with the pretend amusement. This entire film, every scene he has is filled with moments like that one. It's an ensemble filled with amazing actors and interesting characters but no one, not even Oscar nominated Affleck comes close.

Affleck is excellent giving the audience and the other characters the creeps and he has fantastic line delivery in the scene where Charley and Jesse's cousin are making fun of him but again, Rockwell needs no lines. He doesn't even need much screen-time. He just needs to show up, and whenever he does you don't actually feel you are watching the actor. He is Charley.


The closer the film gets to the movie's titular scene, the more impressive Rockwell's performance becomes. Interesting thing is that when I was watching the movie for the first time years ago, I wasn't thinking how justified the Ford brothers were in killing Jesse. To do it in his home, in front of his family was terrible, but the film does a fantastic job establishing just how controlling and unpredictable Jesse got over time. They really felt like it was them versus him.

I read a lot of interviews with Rockwell and he claims he is afraid of everything. Things like getting sick or dying. I don't know how much that helps him in his acting but he really knows how to show fear:


But there is so much more. There is so much shame. There is so much sadness. There is so much self loathing. All of this is painted on his face. He doesn't have a single line in the film's most famous scene and yet he completely steals it.

As the Ford brothers decide that they are going to kill Jesse right there and then and he says "don't that picture look dusty?" and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's gorgeous "What must be done" starts playing, what begins is the kind of gorgeous cinematic ballet. Jesse walks towards the picture, Robert readies himself to do the deed and Charley?

Oh, Charley:


If I were to choose my favorite scene of any movie Rockwell has done (and let's keep in mind I watch Frost/Nixon several times a year) that is it. The way that after Jesse drops dead Charley lowers his gun (first gif of this post) is the most memorable moment of the movie for me.

After the titular scene happens, I feel that this is the area of the movie that the 4h cut version must have explored better because events happen very fast once Jesse is gone. Rockwell only has several short moments to really establish just how haunted and depressed, completely destroyed by his participation in the murder, Charley became but he uses the most of his screen time, showing just how unhinged Charley is and how distraught with guilt.


(this is by the way one of the greatest deliveries of the word "shit" I've ever witnessed). What also helps is the use of the narrator here, informing us just how gutted Charley was about Jesse and about Jesse's wife, being left without anything and her husband.

I recently discovered that Sam wanted the role of Robert Ford so bad, that when they told him  they want him to play Charley he didn't want to do the movie at all. It took Brad Pitt coming over to his apartment to convince him. See, if Sam did play Robert I'm sure he would effortlessly top what Casey Affleck did. I can imagine someone else playing Robert. But I cannot imagine anyone else playing Charley. 


As I publish this we are 3 weeks away from Oscar night. This year not only was Sam finally nominated, but he is actually a front-runner to win. And what a joy it will be to witness, if he does. I was recently ranking his performances and it was almost impossible to decide which is better than the other. 

Thing is that this one right here is my favorite. But for someone else it's gonna be Moon. Or Green Mile. Or Galaxy Quest. Or his endearingly sweet performance in The Winning Season. When you look at that ranking you won't find a single bad performance there. Hell , number 17? I watched that performance so many times. And it's number 17!

This is a guy who always delivers great work. But sometimes his characters, when they are cool and charismatic as Rockwell is in real life, e.g. in Seven Psychopaths and Mr. Right, feel so close to him. But when you watch him as Charley, this poor, lost soul? He doesn't act. He disappears into a role. To call that a "performance" isn't doing it justice, so yeah, let's go with a "miracle".



19 comments:

  1. I know everyone was on about Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck but it was Sam Rockwell that stole the film from everyone and man, he was so fucking good in this. Watching him is really a textbook example of how to do a performance. He pretty much took everyone to school, especially in the third act where he displays so much guilt over his actions.

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    1. YES! He is definitely the MVP here. I hate how he didn't get a single nomination for this.

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  2. Great post! The dinner table scene in this film was so intense. Rockwell is great. I couldn't picture him playing Robert though, only Charley. I'm sorry but that line about Robert being 19...man, Casey hasn't seen 19 in years. That always distracted me.

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    1. Wait Robert was 19? I completely missed that. I thought Rockwell saying in interview that he was 'too old' was his usual humble self. But he could still pull it off more than Renner and Dillahunt who also wanted the part

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  3. This might be one of my favourite posts you've ever written, Margaret. I love Jesse James so much, it is indeed SUCH a masterpiece. I admit the first time I watched it (ahem, nearly ten years ago??) I didn't notice Rockwell as much, but rewatches really made me look at him.

    I'm glad the movie allowed such a performance: the slow pace, how it lets the camera linger on a character for a few seconds longer - that's what gets us these amazing silent moments. And goddammit we should have that director's cut.

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    1. Thank you so much! Yes! It's been so many years since that cut screened, it's really a shame that there are still no news of it being released. Even if it has pacing issues, as I imagine any 4h movie would, I still wanna see it so bad

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  4. I watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford today for the first time and I absolutely loved. The characters are deep and complex, the cinematography is gorgeous, but the performances are easily the best thing about the film, and Sam's is fantastic. Great post!

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    1. I'm so glad you loved it! It's quite a challenging movie but it's so beautiful.

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  5. Great breakdown of a flawless performance. I cannot wait to watch this movie again and pay particular attention to Rockwell's work in it. I remember his delivery of "Shit" so vividly. And wow, picturing Rockwell playing Robert Ford... that would've been great.

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    1. Thank you! It's just such a rich work. He uses every single moment he has to the max. What I'd give to see more footage from this film!

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  6. Wow, I need to watch this film. I haven't even seen it! I really like Rockwell in everything I have seen, especially Moon. I this this film is scored by Nick Cave too... yeah I gotta go watch it. Pretty sure I have a copy.. somewhere.

    Thanks for highlighting a movie I really need to watch :) I'll have to come back to this post after I have watched it

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    1. I hope you'll like it! This is also the greatest score Cave ever done.

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    2. Wow those are strong words!! Gonna watch it tonight :D

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  7. I didn't want to read this before I saw the movie and now you've made me cry. For me, the last scene of his, the last gif you use, was what did it for me in the movie. I was broken and could hardly keep watching the movie.

    I agree with you in regards to his ability to deliver great roles no matter the movie he is in. I love his light hearted performances, his silly performance and his serious ones. And he is finally being recognised for what he has been doing for years, not just great acting but the ability to throw one self into characters, become them, and just be them. God, I love him so much!

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    1. That last scene he had was so sad :(

      Jesse James is also a great film in a sense that it gave all those actors such layered characters to play and Sam did have a chance to be both silly and heartbreaking here. I'm so happy for him, cannot wait for the Oscars!

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  8. Nice post! I watched this film before I knew who Sam was, and I didn't really like it. But now I think I need to watch it again.

    I'm so happy Sam is getting the recognition he deserves. He should've gotten it long time ago, but better late than never!

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    1. Exactly! He has been delivering amazing work for decades now. It's lovely that he is finally getting all this attention.

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  9. ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ is one of my favourite films - if not THE favourite - but I’ve never quite analysed Sam Rockwell’s acting. Until now. Thank you so much for writing such an impassioned and fascinating article on the subject. I am off to watch the film (again) where I’ll be observing Mr Rockwell’s performance very closely.

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind words! So nice to see so many people love this film!

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