Sam Neill did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Hector "Uncle Hec" in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Sam Neill despite leading one of the biggest films of all time, Jurassic Park, kind of faded into a certain obscurity going so far as to appear as the doctor in The Escape Plan for some reason. Neill perhaps has gotten his most prominent feature film role in sometime, although it is not saying enough, this film should be more recognized if you ask me, but nevertheless still notable. Anyways it seems Neill just merely needs to take roles where his character goes through an arc involving paternal instincts. So there must be a beginning for that, and the film opens with our troubled youth Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) being brought to his new home with his "foster aunt" Bella ready to take care of him, who is married to Neill's Hec. Hec though is not overly interested in the boy, with the initiative of taking Ricky in clearly belonging to his wife. Neill only has a scant few lines in the first twenty minutes of the film, but that in no way hinders Neill's performance. Neill is a great irascible old man in the early scenes as he mostly keeps to himself, as this old sort more comfortable hunting than interacting with someone. Neill exudes such a well placed disdain early on for essentially this initial nuisance of having Ricky around.
After a bit though Ricky becomes more comfortable with his new home and Hec seems to become a bit comfortable with Ricky. Neill's very good though in showing this as basically in reflection to his wife's appreciation of the boy. He hasn't completely taken him into his heart, but Neill shows just the right hints of a potential warmth beneath his crusty old surface. Tragedy though soon strikes though as Bella suddenly dies and even though it is not focused upon for too long Neill actually is very moving in portraying first the more overt anguish at discovering her death then later just wearing the grief within Hec. This is basically all left to Neill and he's really quite effective in internalizing the death within his work. I particularly love his completely humorless reaction towards Ricky, when he asks if he can't get a replacement wife, as Neill shows so well that it is no laughing matter to Hec. He truly has lost someone very dear to him. The film then takes its turn to the main story as Ricky, rather than returning to the child services, decides to run away into the forest, with Hec following shortly afterwards to find him.
This is when Neill's performance really comes into play with the film, and where frankly the brilliance of it becomes evident. Sam Neill essentially has to do it all in that the film needs a bridge between its various aspects, and Neill is that bridge. The film is a comedy, a very funny one at that, and much of the humor is derived from the interactions between Ricky and Hec. Dennison gives a somewhat broad performance as a wannabe gangsta type of kid, and Neill plays so well off of that set up. Neill himself never seems to unintentionally go for laughs, he technically speaking plays Hec in a very realistic fashion, but that's what makes his performance so great. He's a downright perfect as a straight man for Dennison, as his often stone cold reactions to some of his more nonsensical statements are quite hilarious. Neill knows exactly how to amplify anything that Dennison does by so honestly portraying Hec's extremely amusing befuddlement at the boys personal style. Neill is never one note in this and he's so good at keeping his timing right on point throughout the film making just about every comic setup he's given work absolutely without question.
That is not to say that Neill makes Hec some static character, despite needing to act as the straight man. One thing that is so remarkable about Neill's portrayal of Hec is the way he actually is able to build up to a couple of straight jokes himself, and he completely earns them. Neill delivery of these are flawless because he makes these moments still feel so natural to the character of Hec, he makes so it just would seem like something he would say. I have a particularly affection for his incredibly funny switch of first so dramatically saying "now we run", to his straight forward "no reason to run" after instantly facing exhaustion at the prospect. This is such entertaining performance from Neill and againn he never seems to be trying to be entertaining. That's what makes it so special. In that he works with Dennison but breaks off only at the right time and in a way that seems right for Hec. Neill never sacrifices the character for a joke, but he's consistently amusing throughout the film. Neill gives a great example of what can be done when an actor has such a grasp of his material, and crafts such an effective realization of his character.
Of course this isn't just an entertaining performance, again Neill acts as this very important bridge to making the film worth more than quite a few laughs, although that's already a worth a lot if you ask me. Neill though goes further in realizing that connection between Hec and Ricky. Early on in their adventure together Ricky actually causes Hec to lash out him in anger, when Ricky presses Hec over his inability to read. Neill doesn't hold back in making the anger pretty intense actually and again only fitting to how Hec should be. Neill though is just as believable as he makes Hec's meek little apology over his outburst soon afterwards so genuine. Neill does so much in his reactions throughout the film as he never wastes a moment to convey Hec's growing concern for the boy. Neill never rushes a moment in this absolutely taking each step as he should, and again so much of it is in his silence. Neill makes a particularly powerful moment in Hec's earnest concern as he hears about the death of one of Ricky's friends who was also in the foster home system. Neill says it all without having to say a single thing. Neill's truly impressive the way he realizes the more dramatic moments with such ease throughout the film, such as when he loses his loyal dog in a boar attack. Neill instantly makes the moment genuinely heartbreaking as he shows Hec's subtle sadness over the loss with such poignancy. It's hard boiled in its simplicity, yet there is never doubt that Hec is torn up over what he has to do. There is no transition that Neill fails to realize throughout the film. He always keeps the film grounded in the right way. When basically the moment comes for grumpy old Hec to reveal his love for the boy, again he doesn't have to say anything. Neill makes you feel it instead and it is incredibly heartwarming because of how well he does it. It wasn't from a single moment but capitalization on everything that Neill did previously in the film. There is never a conflict with Neill as this is a performance because he merely is Uncle Hec, and everything he does it exactly what Uncle Hec should do. Everything in his portrayal feels natural which is quite the achievement given the technical tonal movement in the film. Neill makes that tone work. Neill utilizes every second of his screen time to give us such a heartfelt yet incredibly amusing turn, I love this performance.