Sam Rockwell on Outsiders, Mischa Barton and Their Lost Indie Gem Lawn Dogs
Exhausted the classic canon? Fed up with the current cinema of remakes, reboots and reimaginings? This week The Cold Case talks to Sam Rockwell about one of his most underappreciated career gems -- of which he's had more than a few.
"I remember being very influenced by Taxi Driver, and also Tommy Lee Jones in Coal Miner's Daughter a little bit," Sam Rockwell told me Thursday from his Boston apartment where he'd wound up after spending a day -- as he described it in his laid-back tone -- "mellowing out." "I remember thinking about those two particular performances for some reason," he continued. "I think because every guy struggles with loneliness, and being an outsider, it's tough. It was a really nice part to play." He could've been talking about Moon, this year's stellar, one-man sci-fi show for which, if there's any justice, he should receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination. But at the moment we were talking all about Trent, the sensitive redneck at the heart of 1997's criminally underseen Lawn Dogs.
Directed by John Duigan, the gothic fairy tale follows Trent, a simple 21-year-old who mows lawns in the Southern gated community where Mischa Barton's cynical little girl Devon is trapped with her asshole parents Morton and Clare (Christopher McDonald, Kathleen Quinlan). These two strike up an unlikely and innocent friendship that leads to Trent being persecuted by a vigilante posse who want to put an end to him, as much for class hatred as for his perceived crimes, just like some monster out of a Grimm tale.
Indeed, Naomi Wallace's script has Devon picturing herself as the heroine of just such a narrative, tracking the "Baba Yaga" to its forest lair -- in this case, Trent's trailer. This witch character with origins in Slavic mythology has a dual nature; most often, it eats children, although it sometimes guides them to wisdom, at great cost to itself. Wallace and Duigan establish this tension from the moment Trent bites the head off a gingerbread man Devon leaves behind.
But the real villains of the piece are the suburbanites of Camelot Gardens, a community whose gates are castle-like turrets. Despite their outward moral propriety -- Morton wants to be "model of citizen involvement" for the kudos it'll bring in this Republican enclave -- Devon's parents are loathsome. Clare is having an affair with a local stud named Bruce, not knowing that he's also forcing himself on Devon. And when their daughter tells her parents that Bruce felt her up, neither of them believe her, mostly because Bruce's dad is an important local conservative figure. As for the meaningless work-and-wealth ethos of Camelot Gardens, there's no better visual metaphor than the phalanxes of abused blue-collar whites and minorities endless cutting lawns that are being continually refreshed by sprinklers.
In this milieu, Trent and Devon's bond is that they're vulnerable outsiders. Both have the scars to prove their near-death experiences -- his from being gunned down by the cops; hers from open-heart surgery -- in a community of rude physical health. They both indulge in little acts of rebellion. Trent rides his mower over a shithead kid's cowboy hat and freaks out a condescending closeted former classmate by planting a kiss on him. Devon pushes a fly into a gingerbread man she's about to sell to her neighbors and, when confronted by a little boy with a toy gun, she pushes the barrel into his mouth and tells him, "You'd be doing the world a favor."
Lawn Dogs isn't without its flaws. Would Trent really be so ignorant as to not see the danger in saying, "We can be friends if you keep it a secret"? Moreover, it's not clear exactly why Devon lets her parents and the local rent-a-cop believe her friend and protector has behaved inappropriately with her, with near-tragic results. But Duigan's visual sense is sublime, giving what could be a grim downer a magic-realist flavor, and there's an agreeable dark humor to leaven subject matter made uneasy by our preconceptions. It probably goes without saying that Rockwell is superb. The revelation, for those happy to diss The O.C. and revel in her recent misfortune, is that Barton displays amazing natural talent that we hope to see again.
"I had a great time with John Duigan, he's pretty amazing," Rockwell told me. "Mischa was fun, we had a lot of fun, and she was very professional. And we had Bruce McGill, Christopher McDonald, and all these wonderful actors. We set out to make a really cool movie, and I think we made a nice movie."
Nice as it was, Lawn Dogs didn't connect with a wider audience. After a successful festival run, the film was only released in New York and Los Angeles, grossing just $106,000.
Speaking from the set of his latest film, the Roman epic The Eagle Of The Ninth, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, veteran producer Duncan Kenworth told Movieline that Lawn Dogs might be the best film of his career. This, from the producer of Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, which followed.
"I say that not from the inverted snobbery of it being the only one to fail commercially, but because I really do think it's extraordinary," he continued. "It's one of the only films about class -- not race, but class -- in the American south, seen through the distorting lens of a magical realist child's perspective. Maybe it was too much of a hybrid, maybe the audience who wanted a class drama were irked by the fantasy, and vice versa, but I've always been drawn to hybrids -- I even drive one. I love the moment when the ground falls away from under your feet, and you realize that the certainties you were relying on don't hold anymore, that it's no longer clear what's real and what's not. That for me is a major part of the magic of filmmaking.
"Sam Rockwell was absolutely riveting in the film," he added. "Mischa Barton gave one of the best-ever child's performances. If the film had been a commercial success, I've no doubt she would have got an Oscar nomination."
As for why Lawn Dogs didn't make it commercially? Kenworthy cited the finale, which polarized audiences, "The bravura ending was really my doing -- my fault, if you don't like it," he said. "It was only hinted at in Naomi's script... and John was anxious it might undercut the drama of the class warfare climax. But I wanted to do it as a full-blown realization of the child's Baba Yaga fantasy -- the river rising, the trees growing. ... I'm certain the film would have worked much better if we'd sold it as the tale of two quirky innocents -- a young guy oppressed by poverty, released from the life he's trapped in by a child he unwillingly befriends. It would be great to re-release it that way!"
As for Rockwell, he's moved on from being that year's Sundance "It" boy. Even so, he's seemingly always on the verge of the A-list, perhaps something that Iron Man 2 or Gentleman Broncos or an Oscar nod for Moon will finally achieve. He has warm recollections of Lawn Dogs and isn't too fussed it didn't break out. "It's a quirky little movie; I don't think it's a mainstream movie," he said. "There are parts that I think are really magical, we got a couple of awards from Barcelona, and Montreal, and we did pretty well critically. But you know, it's a small movie. I've done a lot of sorts of films that are under the radar."
He laughed. "And then I do something like Charlie's Angels."