Jurassic World: Dominion saw Alan Grant finally ride off into the sunset with friends old and new, marking (presumably) the last time Sam Neill will play the most famous role of his career. But Grant is only the tip of the iceberg for Neill, a character actor who has many classics to his name.
Starting his career amidst the Australian New Wave in the mid-70s, Neill has spent the last half-century becoming one of the most celebrated New Zealand actors of his generation, excelling in everything from dark, psychological horror films to light, family comedies. And, of course, a few dinosaur movies.
The first great performance of Neill’s career came in 1977’s Sleeping Dogs, a New Zealand thriller by director Roger Donaldson. The film follows Neill as a hermit divorcee living in isolation with his dog until political tensions force him to choose sides in a rising guerilla war.
As he gets further ensnared in a web of interpersonal and geopolitical conflicts, Neill portrays his everyman protagonist with fascinating complexity, allowing audiences to question his true motivations even as he acts in supposedly altruistic ways. By the film’s final moments, you’re as caught up in the confusion of revolution as much as he is, making Sleeping Dogs one of the great films of the Australian New Wave.
Andrzej Zulawski’s dark masterpiece of horror centers on the deteriorating relationship between a husband and wife (Neill and the unforgettable Isabelle Adjani, respectively) as she appears to be going insane in increasingly odd and dangerous ways. Adjani justifiably won Best Actress at Cannes for her bravura performance, but Neill is just as powerful as the straight man to her extreme outbursts.
The production was exhausting for both Neill and Adjani (who needed several years to recover from the experience), but the resulting film remains as powerful and unsettling today as it was in 1981. After a recent restoration, Possession is enjoying a bit of a renaissance and should be required viewing for any fan of the modern prestige horror movement.
A Cry in the Dark, also known as Evil Angels, is best remembered for Maryl Streep’s iconic performance and the oft parodied line “a dingo ate my baby.” Though Streep is her typically magnetic self, Neill is equally powerful, if not as histrionic.
As her grieving husband tries to logically parse a situation that gets more and more out of hand, Neill deploys his signature steadiness as a counterpoint to Streep’s manic unraveling. Even as his faith falters and he begins to abandon his wife and the truth they both knew, Neill always manages to be sympathetic in his portrayal of a man slowly losing everything.
John McTiernan’s Cold War classic The Hunt For Red October has no shortage of excellent performances. From Sean Connery at the lead, all the way down to James Earl Jones’ government bureaucrat, every actor is working at the height of their powers.
But Sam Neill’s sweetly naive Captain Vasily Borodin offers the most pathos. As one of the Soviet defectors alongside Connery, Neill is given two of the most memorable and bittersweet scenes in the film: a monologue imagining his new life in Montana and the moment that dream is taken away.
Jane Campion’s breakout hit remains one of the most romantic films of all time, featuring A+ performances from Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, and Neill as outsiders forcefully creating a life for themselves in the Australian jungle. Though those first three a really the stars of the show, Neill is powerful and at some points even sympathetic as the film’s villain.
Playing the imaginatively challenged husband to the spirited heroine played by Hunter, Neill brings real complexity to his purely antagonistic role. While each kindness is soon followed by a cruel punishment, the audience can’t help but feel sadness for a man who is lost in his own life and unsure how to manifest the strength that comes so easily to those around him.
John Carpenter is largely known for his classics of the ’70s and ’80s but In the Mouth of Madness is one of his lesser-known masterpieces. Playing on the themes of novelists like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, Carpenter finished his so-called “Apocalypse Trilogy” with a harrowing tale of fandom and gone amuck, with Sam Neill perfectly cast as the film’s protagonist.
Playing an insurance investigator looking into the disappearance of a King-esque superstar novelist, Neill portrays the classic non-believer’s descent into madness with absolute conviction, worthy of the best Twilight Zone episodes while still maintaining Caprpetner’s flair for the extreme, landing on one of the greatest final images of the director’s career.
Largely derided at the time, Paul W.S. Anderson’s space horror film Event Horizon has developed a cult reputation over the years, largely thanks to Neill’s unhinged performance. The film is centered around an interstellar crew that has happened upon a long-lost ship orbiting Neptune, only to find that the ship has opened a rift in the space-time continuum and allowed evil forces to enter our dimension.
The film itself is as silly and maximalist as its premise suggests, but it is saved by Neill as the designer of the lost ship and eventual host of a demonic entity that hopes to destroy the film’s heroes. Much as he did in In the Mouth of Madness before, Neill excels at the turn from steady intellectual to a dangerous psychopath, giving this B-movie of the ’90s the juice it needs to stay in the public consciousness.
This quietly charming comedy is one of the most popular films in modern Australian filmmaking. Telling the little-known tale of a small Australian village that finds itself becoming a crucial piece of the momentous moon landing in 1969, Sam Neill is the lone star amongst a cavalcade of charming Aussie character actors.
Though the events in the film are certainly exaggerated, Neill and his castmates deliver a delightful little film that is emblematic of the kinds of small-town comedies at which Australia excels, satirizing not only perceived Australian provinciality but also American grandiosity.
In one of screen legend Peter O’Toole’s final films, Neil plays the titular Dean Spanley, a blandly ordinary clergyman who reveals himself to be much stranger than he initially seemed. More specifically he begins to reveal his past life as an eager Welsh Spaniel.
Though the film’s emotional core lies with O’Toole and Jeremy Northam as a father and son in dire need of reconciliation, Neill is a standout. He brings delightful austerity to each monologue and fond remembrance of his past life, offering a masterclass in ironic gravitas.
Telling the tale of a foster child and his curmudgeonly caretaker as they flee into the woods away from the cruel bureaucracy of modern society, Taika Watiti firmly established the style in Hunt for the Wilderpeople that would lead him to reinvent Thor and satirize Hitler.
To play the cantankerous farmer/father figure, Watiti tapped Neill, who by this point has become one of the most celebrated actors in New Zealand’s history. Unsurprisingly, Neill’s performance is pitch perfect as he borrows elements from previous performances (most notably the reluctant father figure in Jurassic Park) to create a rich character that the audience easily grows to love.
NEXT: Every Jurassic Movie Ranked by Rewatchability