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Sam Rockwell Lands His Next Controversial Role in Taika Waititi’s ‘Jojo Rabbit’

From playing a racist cop to a Nazi captain, Rockwell needs a focused story to make these extreme characters work.
Three Billboards Sam Rockwell Woody Harrelson
By  · Published on April 24th, 2018

From playing a racist cop to a Nazi captain, Rockwell needs a focused story to make these extreme characters work.

Sam Rockwell won awards left, right ,and center earlier this year for playing a violent, racist police officer in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but he is far from done depicting abhorrent characters in offbeat movies. Is there a “better” way to follow up the role of Officer Dixon than by playing a Nazi captain?

The Hollywood Reporter announced that Rockwell has found his latest project in Taika Waititi‘s World War II movie, Jojo Rabbit. Rockwell is set to play the head of a Hitler Youth camp in the film, which is characterized as “Nazi Germany satire” by THR.

Waititi insists that Jojo Rabbit will not glorify Hitler’s regime and that the film will instead be told through the eyes of a 10-year-old German boy whose innocence is tainted by the rise of Nazi Germany. The film will track the boy, who dreams of joining the Hitler Youth due to a skewed sense of fatherly bond that he imagines he has with Hitler — well, a version of Hitler that that he conjures up in his head (played by Waititi himself).

The confusing effects of omnipresent Nazi propaganda and the lack of a paternal figure in the boy’s life are the main reasons that his perspectives have gone so awry. Hence, when the boy finds out that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic of their home, he initially tries to get rid of her to the best of his abilities. Eventually, the boy learns to see the girl as human.

The fact that Jojo Rabbit is the first movie that Rockwell signed on to after his clean awards sweep for a similarly controversial role is both understandable and baffling. He is certainly unnervingly tenacious in Three Billboards, playing a character so caught up in his own violent perspective that to see beyond his own prejudice is impossible until something equally confronting makes him go into a tailspin.

There’s no doubt that Rockwell is a magnetic actor. But the incensed audience reactions towards Dixon’s arc are not unfounded in the context of Three Billboards as a whole, given that the film is far from perfect in its treatment of injustice. It’s almost amusing that Rockwell is adamantly not staying away from such deeply problematic characters, at least for a while.

The most glaring problem with Three Billboards is that it suffers from an inability to portray more than one issue at a time while giving that issue the weight that it deserves. The film empowers Frances McDormand’s Mildred to champion women but fails to do the same for the black citizens of Ebbing that Dixon abuses. This dilutes Dixon’s arc and the story as a whole. In Three Billboards, terribly flawed and outright awful human beings can have moments of clarity. But the film is still incomplete in demonstrating how a grossly bigoted character like Dixon could come to any sort of self-actualizing epiphany when he doesn’t take responsibility for all the things he’s done.

None of these storytelling problems is strictly Rockwell’s fault and I don’t think anyone would go so far as to associate him with Dixon anyway. Nevertheless, this subsequent acceptance of the role of a Nazi captain can’t endear him much more to the people who were left wary after Three Billboards in the first place, especially the ones outraged at his multiple victories this past awards season.

In Jojo Rabbit, Rockwell will once again play an enforcer of a greater regime’s horrors. How Rockwell and Waititi handle Jojo Rabbit‘s serious subject matter and balance out the film’s more peculiar narrative beats may inadvertently make or break the movie. The good news is that with Waititi’s reassurance, maybe Rockwell will just be an outright asshole in Jojo Rabbit and no one will be left feeling like they have to sympathize with a symbol of oppression.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)