In Praise of Sam Neill

There is nobody I would rather watch descend into madness

SITGES, SPAIN - OCTOBER 11: Sam Neill attends a photocall for his Time Machine Award at the Sitges F...
Robert Marquardt/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Robert Rubsam

Sam Neill has a gigantic mouth. Seriously, look at this thing:

It cuts across his bull-dog features like a fracture, and when he widens it, his entire face changes: his furrows open up, his chin sinks into his neck, and his top teeth come yawning out like a row of stalactites. Even when he’s laughing — and boy does he know how to laugh — Sam Neill looks like he’s about to devour you whole.

The 74 year-old New Zealander will return to American cinemas this week in the latest Jurassic World film. Alongside former co-stars Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum, he will be reprising the role of Alan Grant, the grumpy paleontologist who briefly rocketed Neill to fame in the 1990s. It’s an odd role, and hardly representative of Neill’s strengths. He has to be a cool uncle, gruff, projecting steady capability opposite two extremely loud children. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone else selling the wonder of gazing at a meadow into which a brontosaurus will later be digitally composited. You look at this face, mouth massively agape, and you believe.

Neill got his start in New Zealand TV, and most Americans probably saw him first as an unfortunately idealistic submarine officer in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, when he was already 43. Like most actors who come to prominence in their middle age, it is startling to watch a lithe young Neill in his earlier roles, sneering his way through the third Omen movie and howling at the tentacled embodiment of his own marital failures in Possession. Yet these early roles set the template for many of Neill’s best performances: as the man with the evil secret, and the cuckold.

Like fellow antipodean Cate Blanchett, Neill almost never uses his home accent on-screen. Instead, he approximates a kind of mid-century, mid-Atlantic cadence, the soft, suave voice of authority, which is to say: of the movies. There is something wonderfully clipped to the voice coming out of that tight-lipped sneer, the way he pronounces words like am-ah-teuhr. He draws attention to the fact of his acting, and when he cracks, as his characters almost always do, then the affect begins to slip, reminding us that the voice we hear isn’t the truth, and the man speaking is somehow off, that he has far more beneath the surface than he is willing to reveal.

Consider his performance in John Carpenter’s vastly underrated In the Mouth of Madness. Neill plays John Trent, an insurance fraud investigator with a fifties accent and forties suit and who is hired to search for a horror writer named Sutter Cane who has gone missing. Trent believes that he is being strung along, and even after traveling to a fictional New Hampshire town populated entirely by creatures out of Cane’s books, he refuses to admit that the nightmare he is living inside is in fact happening for real. Like any Lovecraft narrator, he is an essentially unimaginative bore who must have his mind fundamentally reformed by the horrors he has witnessed. We like him, and we can’t wait for his sanity to get ripped wide open so that his inner void may be revealed.

It’s great fun, and Neill pulls it off. His performance grounds the story in a sort of movie reality, at once naturalistic and artificial, just like the increasingly metafictional horrors spiraling out around him. We wait and we wait for his prim sneer to wrench open and let loose howls of terror and rage. And the whole time Neill seems just as comfortable with the façade as the crack-up, so it becomes an extreme delight to watch his disbelief dragged, kicking and screaming, into pure cackling madness, a trick he would pull off a few years later in Paul W.S. Anderson’s serial killer-Solaris mash-up Event Horizon, in which he goes from the movie’s emotional center to its villain.

His best roles tend to marry repression to extremity. His characters refuse to admit to anyone their capacity for violence and abasement, until it ruptures out, inescapably, into the world. In Possession, he plays anAmerican master spy whose controlled veneer splinters at even the thought of his wife’s infidelity. Yet to keep himself away from her is like going into withdrawal. Maintaining the façade of married life becomes a kind of addiction that Neill goes to increasingly crazed lengths to maintain.

Even more so in Jane Campion’s The Piano. In the finest of his cuckolded performances, Neill plays Alisdair Stewart, the distant New Zealand homesteader whom Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath marries in absentia. Stewart is a cramped, ineffectual man, who can’t help but look with dismay on the world and the people around him. He may tear apart the bush, but nothing of value grows in the scar. And when McGrath begins with a torrid affair with a farm worker, Stewart cannot help but crawl under the floor boards and watch, eyes bugging out, mouth hung open. He watches every last minute of it, unable to barge in and pull the pair apart. Only once McGrath has returned home does he confront her — unleashing his jealousy and rage with an axe, taking his revenge upon her piano-playing fingers.

Once his unexpected Hollywood sojourn tailed off around the turn of the century, Neill returned to New Zealand, where he still regularly works in film and TV. He’s become a recognizable supporting player and wonderful social media user, wearing a great white beard around that massive mouth, posting photos from his vineyard and lending substantial heft to small projects. In The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Waititi’s last and possibly final good movie, he imbued more than a bit of resentment and rage into an otherwise feel-good part. Even better is his work in the astounding 2017 Australian western Sweet Country, in which his naively optimistic preacher runs head-on into the limits of justice in a nation founded on one race’s domination over another. It’s arguably the best performance of his career, and yet Neill is rarely at the center of the frame, ceding ground to Hamilton Morris’s quiet portrayal of an Aboriginal man charged with murder for defending his wife from the white rancher who raped her. Neill’s role almost certainly helped such an acidic film get made, but he rarely insists on our attention and never chews scenery. His presence is enough.

All of which is to say that throughout his career Neill has been delightfully without vanity. He excels at playing creeps and sidekicks, lunatics and assholes, demon children and pining lovers who will never get the girl. He once said that he took villain roles because they were more fun, and he is still willing to take the third or fourth lead in order to work with a director like Wim Wenders. Even in Jurassic Park he knows that the audience is really looking for someone who will guide them to the dinosaurs. And when a black hole summons his dead wife and commands him to gouge out his eyes and kill all of his comrades on a space retrieval vessel? He’ll open that massive mouth of his and reply: yes, that too.

Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.