Tension. It is perhaps the most vital component of any good story. Whether that story is dramatic, romantic, horrific or comedic – they all need an element of tension to make them work. There are many, highly effective plot devices that filmmakers can employ to build that tension – in concert with more technical methods, such as sound, lighting, music and framing – but there is, perhaps, none better than the old solo character trope, which is used to great effect in this month’s Locke.
Written and directed by Steven Knight (Hummingbird, Dirty Pretty Things), Locke features Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) as a construction foreman driving from Birmingham to London. During his journey, he tries to settle issues over the phone, while pondering his dead father. The film takes place almost entirely in the car, with the other side of his phone conversations audible, but not visible.
The reason that the solo character movie concept immediately stands out from the crowd, is because it hangs entirely on the shoulders of the actor in the role. With only one person effectively on screen for the duration of the film, the stakes are even higher than usual when it comes to their performance. Every other department in the production can be working at the pinnacle of their talents, but if the only person on-camera drops the ball, all their efforts are for nought.
These films are not easy to achieve. In terms of writing, the story must be constructed in such a way as to hold the attention, and keep the audience invested in the character, their situation, and its outcome. It is no coincidence that, usually, the solo character trope often intersects with that of ‘trapped character,’ or ‘stuck in one place.’ This is because, firstly, it lends itself easier to the idea of the character remaining alone, and secondly, it amplifies the aspects of tension, drama and isolation needed to maintain momentum. Many excellent films use the ‘single location’ plot device on its own, while featuring more than one character, and it can be very effective.
Films such as Tape, Cube and Rear Window are perfect examples of this narrative trick, in which the setting almost takes on a character of its own. Similarly, films in which the period of isolation for a character (or characters) is framed within a depiction of more ‘normal’ lives – such as Phone Booth, Dog Day Afternoon, and Cast Away – can be greatly affecting, offering a stark reminder of the contrast in settings.Next
The solo character film, such as Locke, is a distinct sub-set, and boasts far fewer members. In compiling a list of examples, the first thing that became obvious is that – despite the wide variety of settings and situations, the common thread running through each is communication. Each solo character film contains, at its very centre, an attempt in some way to communicate with the wider world. Whether that be by telephone, video, tape recordings, or the written word – the isolation of the character is always framed against their desire to connect.
You might wonder, “Well, isn’t that obvious?” Yes, it is – which is kind of the point. What’s wrong with having a film depicting isolation that is actually about the isolation being experienced, and not a need for connection? To make a film about isolation is to make a film about mindfulness – about living inside the moment you are experiencing – which would be quite an intense thing to watch. To make a film about an isolated character seeking connection, however, is to make a film about aspiration – and that is a profitable staple of the modern Hollywood diet.
The second thing that became obvious – and this is very important thing to note – is that, despite spending considerable time researching various English-language titles to fit this very specific bill, I could not find a film involving a solo character that wasn’t a white male. Sure, Gravity features Sandra Bullock alone for most of the movie, but George Clooney plays a significant role. Will Smith spends a big chunk of I Am Legend alone, but there’s still a sizeable cast list featuring significant other characters with onscreen roles.
It seems that the concept of diversity has yet to reach this particular movie trope, although if our readers can highlight a film that disproves that – feel free to say so in the comments section below. In the meantime, before you seek out Locke in theatres, here are some examples of solo character movies, to get you in the mood.
Be warned, there are spoilers for each of the films discussed.Previous Next
All Is Lost
From writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), this survival drama features Robert Redford as ‘Our Man,’ in a film that employs two dramatic devices to insert us into his nail-biting story – the solo character, and the time-shift. As All Is Lost opens, we hear Our Man gently resigning himself to the fact that “all is lost,” before the tale snaps back to eight days previously.
Clearly a resourceful and experienced sailor, he is alone and asleep in the midst of the Indian Ocean when he is awoken by a collision with a rogue shipping container. Investigation quickly reveals that the encounter has torn a hole into the hull and begun to flood his vessel with water. Our Man dislodges the container, patches up the damage, and fashions a replacement for the missing handle on his hand bilge pump. This initial accident sets in motion a relentless chain of events that continuously challenge and threaten Our Man. His navigational and communication equipment are damaged and, in fixing those, he spots a tropical storm heading his way. Once the storm is upon him, he is thrown overboard and the boat capsizes before righting itself, with everything damaged beyond repair. Our Man escapes in an inflatable life raft with the intention of heading into the shipping lanes, but discovers his ordeal is far from over as he finds himself out of food, water and signalling devices.
What is essentially a very simple, three-act story is carried squarely on the shoulders of its only cast member – Robert Redford – with the barest minimum of dialogue. In a clear example of the main requirement on an actor in a solo character film, Redford commands the screen – filling every inch as necessary and compelling the audience to unconsciously invest themselves in Our Man and his struggle. This achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact that we really know nothing about Our Man. Beyond his proficiency in a sailboat, we don’t know who he is, where he comes from, why he is there alone and, crucially, if anyone is waiting for him to return. The result is that we do not identify with him as a person, we simply identify with his sheer will to live.Previous Next
In some ways, Moon is kind of cheating in terms of making its way onto this list, because there is technically more than one person in the movie – it’s just that they’re both Sam Bell.
Set in the year 2035, Lunar Industries has responded to a global oil crisis by pioneering ‘Sarang’ – an automated mining base on the Moon. The base is designed to excavate and send to Earth vast quantities of Helium-3, and when we meet Lunar Industries Astronaut and Sarang Operator Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), he is two weeks from the end of a three-year shift, manning the base. It’s just him and a robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), though he does occasionally receive video messages from his wife, and briefly, a communication from headquarters.
What follows is this character’s gradual realization that he is, in fact, not who he thinks he is – but is, instead, a clone. The life he thinks he leads, and the family he thinks he has, all belong to somebody else. He discovers that the light at the end of his tunnel – his longed for trip home – is simply a mirage, designed to lead him to his own destruction – at which point, he will be replaced by another blissfully unaware clone. He is entirely interchangeable, with a limited shelf-life when operational, and is confronted, in very short order, with his own end.
The result is a heart-shattering and devastating story, compounded by a breathtaking central performance from Rockwell. In another example of an actor that we are used to seeing in supporting roles, stepping up to inhabit the whole screen for an entire movie, he leads this production with a pitch-perfect turn – moving effortlessly from hopeful, to confused, to broken, to resigned – all in the space of 97 minutes. Not to mention his Sam Bell replacement who, having saved his life, becomes more arrogant and belligerent than his predecessor – having the benefit of essentially knowing what he is early on in his awakening, without having to deal with the central conceit committed by the corporation.
Directed by Duncan Jones from a screenplay by Nathan Parker – based on Jones’ own story – Moon quickly became one of the more beloved independent movies of recent years. Its combination of a highly original story, a well-constructed, claustrophobic, isolating setting, and the deeply moving music of Clint Mansell, all work together to create exactly the right atmosphere. But, it is the work of Sam Rockwell in this film, as the solo human character, that elevates it to such an impressive level.
Philip Baker Hall is one of those ‘character actors’ whose face and voice are incredibly familiar. You feel like you have seen him many times – because you have. He was Sidney in Midnight Run, and the IRS boss in Say Anything. He was the Police Commissioner in Ghostbusters II and Floyd Gondolli in Boogie Nights. He was Senator Matt Hunt in The West Wing, and Dr. Bowman in the recently released Bad Words. Yes, he’s that guy – the quintessential supporting actor. But did you know he also played Richard Nixon?
Secret Honor began life as a play, written by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone – who then adapted it for film. The project was directed by the legendary Robert Altman, with Philip Baker Hall taking the lead – and only role. Essentially a 90 minute monologue, Secret Honor sees a disgraced Nixon prowling around his study in his New Jersey home, in the late 1970s. Surrounded by CCTV, a loaded revolver, a bottle of whiskey and a tape recorder capturing everything for posterity, Nixon covers a multitude of topics concerning his life and career – all the while riding a wave of emotions, from sadness and rage, to suspicion and disappointment.
During this masterful and surprising tour-de-force by Hall, we see each of Nixon’s faces – the self-deprecating, unsure man of humble beginnings, the self-pitying martyr, the master of denial and the petty scam artist. Alternating between rage and reflection, Nixon eventually lays bare his truth about Watergate in such a way as to, once again, absolve himself of any wrongdoing. It was the fault of the American people, you see, because they just loved him too much, and he had to sabotage that strength of feeling before they had the chance to vote for him again. From his point of view, he sacrificed himself to save them from their own blind adoration.
For an actor who rarely carries an entire project, Secret Honor is astonishing. Hall inhabits Nixon and presents a man who is at times unravelling, at times trying to convince himself of his own virtue, and at times presenting himself for the approval of a perceived audience – those transcribing the tape he is recording on, and beyond. He fills the screen and keeps us engaged with him – alone – for the full 90 minutes, shouldering the responsibility of dialling the tension up and down as necessary, in an otherwise sparse production.Previous Next
With the exception of All Is Lost and Buried, 127 Hours is perhaps the closest film to a solo character movie since 2009’s Moon. Yes, the character in question – Aron Ralston (James Franco) – has flashbacks about his family, but they are not physically there with him in his isolated circumstance. Yes, Ralston meets, and briefly hangs out with two young women at the beginning of the movie, but this is the swiftest of interludes. The vast majority of 127 Hours sees Ralston – a real-life ‘canyoneer’ – entirely alone. This extended isolation is something that becomes the crux of the issue when he slips down a canyon and finds his arm trapped by a boulder. What follows is a very real scenario which begs the question – what would you do to survive?
Based on Ralston’s book about his life-changing experience – ‘Between A Rock And A Hard Place’ – 127 Hours sees James Franco play out the events of his 5 day ordeal under the masterful direction of Danny Boyle. At first, Aron tries to damage the rock using his pen-knife. Realizing the knife is having no effect on the boulder at all, he turns it on his arm, but discovers it is now too blunt to cut. As desperation sets in, he begins to have flashbacks about his family, and resigns himself to a slow death.
After five days – during which his water supply has dwindled to nothing – he has what he believes to be a premonition about his unborn son. He begins to realize, through his confusion, that he can apply force to his arm to snap his bones, after which he cuts the arm off with a smaller, sharper knife. Finally free, but still in a remote and isolated location, Ralston must then get himself to a place where he can be rescued.
Steeped in intensity, 127 Hours presents a battle for survival in which one gravely injured man must battle his own mind, as well as his environment, in order to survive. What is truly fascinating about the movie is that, being based on Ralston’s book, we know that in the film, he will survive. Difficult though his situation becomes, we already know the character is currently alive and well and hiking through more canyons. The achievement here is that – despite there being no real element of surprise or discovery – we are still gripped at the throat by each and every frame. That is certainly a testament to both the director and the star, but also to Simon Beaufoy – who essentially managed to write a full, detailed and dramatic screenplay about a man stuck in a hole, alone.
Categorized as a psychological thriller, Buried is the perhaps the ultimate example of a solo character film. Opening on Ryan Reynolds as Paul Conroy, we quickly discover that he has woken up in a coffin-shaped box, buried in an unknown location. He finds that he has with him a lighter, flask, flashlight, knife, glow sticks, pen, and mobile phone. A phone call from his kidnapper – demanding a ransom of $5 million, without which he will be left there to die – begins a chain of communications through which we discover who he is, how he got there, and what is going on outside.
It transpires that he is a US truck driver working in Iraq, whose team was ambushed. He is sure his colleagues were all killed, before he was knocked out by a rock to the head. During the 95 minute length of the film, neither Conroy, nor the camera, leave the coffin. Communicating with his kidnapper, the State Department, a representative from the Hostage Working Group, his employer, and his wife – both by voice and by video – Conroy works to catch up with events, and tries to facilitate his own rescue.
There are two stunning achievements in Buried. Firstly, the way in which the director is able to bring action scenes into the film, via a telephone call, without ever leaving the coffin. The use of sound brings visual impressions of things we have no way of seeing – inevitably leaving the audience to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own imagination, just as Paul Conroy does – which makes the entire scenario that much more disturbing. Secondly, the achievement of Ryan Reynolds, as an actor. That’s right – Van Wilder. The guy from Just Friends and The Proposal. The one that played The Green Lantern. For the rest of his career – whatever it may hold – Buried is the film that will define his abilities onscreen.
It feels like it lasts for a fraction of its running time – simply because we are entirely absorbed in Paul Conroy’s situation. We know nothing about him – he could have done terrible, terrible things – but we are invested in him as much as we are in the drama, right from the opening shot. The reason for that is his gripping performance. There’s confusion, panic, anger, and desperation. There’s grief for the people he knows has died, and for the person whose execution he is made to view on his phone. There’s shock, and a brief, traumatised disconnect from reality, before the crushing blow of realisation strikes once more. There’s the determination to comfort and reassure his wife, as he lays trapped in a coffin, and there’s the gut-wrenching tone in his voice as his emotional roller-coaster hits resignation.
This is the remarkable thing about the central performance in Buried. While Robert Redford is alone at sea – he has the boat and the weather to physically interact with. While Philip Baker Hall is alone in Nixon’s office, he has all that space to stomp around in. While Sam Rockwell is alone on the Moon, he has a clone of himself to deal with. Ryan Reynolds is alone in Buried, and can’t move beyond wriggling around in a space only slightly bigger than his own body. Everything that he conveys – everything that he makes us feel (and boy, do we feel it) – it’s all with his voice. The tone, the volume and the sounds he makes. It is an honest-to-goodness triumph of a delivery, in a film that is small in scale, but epic in impact.Previous