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.