If there’s any justice in the world, many of you will spend 85 minutes of your upcoming weekend in a car with Tom Hardy. “Locke,” the formally rigorous, real-time Steven-Knight-directed film opens on Friday, and it’s terrific: a taut drama that unfolds like a thriller despite being a small, detail-specific, domestic story; and an absorbing Richard Burton-inflected showcase for its sole onscreen star. Hardy, aided by the offscreen voices of Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott and others via his handsfree phone ( the way Knight organized the calls, so that they came to Hardy “live” is fascinating) is just brilliant, crucially underplaying most of the time, as though aware that with only him onscreen (also immobile), the tiniest tic is magnified exponentially. It’s the kind of tour de force that highlights by contrast just where so many other single-actor films go wrong.
Not that there actually are that many, no doubt because the potential pitfalls of this approach are legion. Not only does it require an actor of immense versatility and charisma, the format is extraordinarily unforgiving on the script too—with most single-actor movies qualifying as single-location films as well, there is literally nowhere for the story to hide, no flashy distractions if things aren’t running smoothly, and nothing else for our attention to grab onto if an awkward turn or a lapse in logic breaks our suspended disbelief. So, allowing ourselves a tiny bit of wiggle room as regards occasional cameos from other performers, bookends or voice-only actors, we looked at ten films that attempt more or less the same trick, and asked of them the same questions that “Locke” answers, for the most part, so well.
Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Perpetual almost-megastar Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, an American civilian contractor in Iraq who is buried alive in a wooden box when his convoy comes under attack by insurgents.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? Via a telephone that his kidnapper/tormentor has placed in the coffin with him, Conroy talks to his captor, to the police, the state department, to the man in charge of his rescue mission, to the head of personnel at his firm and finally, eventually, to his wife whom he’s been trying to contact for hours.
Does It Jump The Shark? Yes, but arguably less often than you’d think given this is a one-man show set in a 7×3-foot box underground that plays as a thriller and yet never leaves that location. For us, the snake-in-the-pants bit is a bridge too far, and the finger thing is kind of pointless, though the major misstep happens just before the end SPOILER ALERT where we see Conroy’s fantasy of rescue happening, which actually subtracts a fair amount of tension from the otherwise uncompromising ending—we already know he isn’t going to be saved, because we’ve seen him get saved and it’s all in his mind. SPOILER ENDS
Is It Any Good? Mileage varies greatly on this one, and some Playlisters are a lot cooler on it, but actually this film works a whole lot better than it has any reasonable right to. Partly it’s that Reynolds is an engaging and sympathetic lead, playing an everyman character no smarter or more resourceful than we might be in that situation. But kudos also go to Cortes who works the tiny location for all it’s worth, even if some of the camera work feels like it too obviously cheats the confinement. In fact the only issue this writer really has with the film is that in wanting so much to be a fast-paced thriller, some credibility and atmosphere is sacrificed as the film finds more and more things for Conroy to do and react to, arguably leaving not enough time for the contemplation of the real horror of his situation: alone, cramped, under the ground and facing death only after an interminable stretch of consciousness.
“The Telephone” (1988)
Director: Rip Torn (yes, that Rip Torn, his sole directorial feature outside a televised Chekhov play; from a script co-written by singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson and “Easy Rider” writer Terry Southern—there is nothing not weird about this one).
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Whoopi Goldberg gives the, um, tour de force (?) here, as a struggling actress called, um again, Vashti Blue, spending a night alone in her small apartment.
Who Does She Interact With, Then? Oh boy. Her goldfish and her owl form an audience of sorts for a series of “performances” but also an irate next-door neighbor who keeps shouting complaints about the noise through the wall; briefly with Elliot Gould who plays a sleazy agent who shows up with his date (Amy Wright); briefly again with John Heard as a telephone company guy; and with various people on the telephone.
Does It Jump The Shark? Does it ever. Several times and with a triple-lutz finish. The pointless and credulity-straining cameo from Gould is a prime example of trying to shoehorn in some character for Goldberg to play off, but he and his date make so little sense as humans (and deliver such odd OTT performances) that it doesn’t fit at all, except maybe within the odd OTT world Goldberg has been inhabiting till then. But the coup de grace has to be the ending SPOILER ALERT when we discover that all the prank calls and best-friend confessionals have been made into a disconnected telephone. And she kills a guy. SPOILER ENDS
Is It Any Good? No. It is strangely car-crash-esque in its rubberneck appeal though, as Goldberg cycles through nonsensical skits and accents (British, Indian, Deep South, Japanese, German, Irish—that one’s particularly dire—and even one we think is a John Wayne drawl when she emerges from the can with her pants down). It was obviously designed to be a showcase for Goldberg’s range, but instead it’s just a series of postures and pouts, before an ending that a late bid for Serious Drama and Mental Health Issues makes all the more risible. Still, gripping, in a how-not-to-do-it way.
“Cast Away” (2000)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Tom Hanks plays FedEx employee Chuck Noland who gets stranded alone on an uninhabited island after his plane goes down.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? Aside from the beginning and end of the film which take place in civilization, largely with a volleyball called Wilson, on which a bloody handprint becomes a face and with which he forms a surprisingly touching relationship to stave off the tremendous loneliness of his situation.
Does It Jump The Shark? Actually, where so many single-actor films have to stretch to keep us interested, “Cast Away” largely avoids that minefield, in great part by having the action of the film take place over the course of four years, which would easily be packed with enough incident as Chuck learns how to fish, make fire, learns about his surroundings and alternately despairs and dreams of rescue or escape. If anything, it’s the quasi-mystical coincidence of the very end that might strain credulity, but by that stage we’re happy to go wherever Chuck does. North, in this case.
Is It Any Good? While not as strict in form as some of the others on this list, and arguably split into different films when Chuck is on or off the island, “Cast Away” deserves its spot for just how well it achieves the main section of the story. Tom Hanks’ everyman appeal has seldom been better used and his evolution from schlubby, clock-watching FedEx company mouthpiece, to lean, wild-haired, spear-chucking island man is totally believable. Hanks has never been better and teamed with Zemeckis’ surefooted storytelling, delivers a sine qua non survival story and an extraordinarily entertaining and hopeful movie to boot.
“Secret Honor” (1984)
Director: Robert Altman
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? In a rare early lead, Paul Thomas Anderson favorite Philip Baker Hall plays a fictionalized version of Nixon, experiencing a long, dark night of the soul in an increasingly ranting, alcohol-fueled diatribe/confessional/reminiscence/memoir of his life before his spectacular fall from grace. Based on the play of the same name.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? Practically speaking, purely with a bottle of scotch, a loaded gun and a tape machine, but essentially the monologue feels like it’s rhetorically directed at times at a putative version of The American Public, at other times at his mother or his assistant Roberto, or a judge, or really, any of many other players in the story that a tangent brings to his mind.
Does It Jump The Shark? A little, when, SPOILER ALERT having spun so many exculpations and excuses, Nixon suggests that he himself was behind the Watergate leak, as his Presidency had become so corrupted by entrenched interests that falling on his sword was the noble thing to do. The portrait of Nixon drawn to that point has been compelling enough, equal parts egomania and intelligence, and arguably the new take on the Watergate conspiracy is a twist too far. SPOILER ENDS
Is It Any Good? It’s stagy, no doubt and definitely only for those with a working knowledge of, and a ready interest in, that period of politics (references are made, sometimes on a first-name basis, to the staff at the time of Watergate, for example—allusions it would be easy to miss if you’re not already familiar). That aside, Hall delivers the kind of performance for which the word “titanic” was coined, and if no scenery is left unchewed, still it’s a brilliant portrait of a sclerotic Nixon rendered as an epic poem, a Viking saga of guilt, blame, rage, and possibly even encroaching dementia.
“Swimming to Cambodia” (1987)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Spalding Gray, as it’s a filmed version of his one-man-monologue/theatrical play, as are his two other features “Monster in a Box” (dir: Nick Broomfield) and “Gray’s Anatomy“(dir: Steven Soderbergh).
Who Does He Interact With, Then? No one really, though there’s a live audience present, some maps behind him, occasional clips from the film “The Killing Fields” and Gray often looks straight into the camera to, giving the impression of no fourth wall.
Does It Jump The Shark? Not at all. In fact, Demme’s approach is subtle but perfectly suited to the filming of what is essentially a raconteur, um, raconteuring. Gray’s mastery of the monologue format, unfashionably austere though it might sound, is such that time flies by, much as it did when seeing him perform live, and the narrative he weaves never ceases to surprise and engage.
Is It Any Good? Because of the style of film it is, it’s definitively not for everyone, and yet it’s much more accessible than you might think. It’s Gray’s account of his involvement with the Roland Joffe film “The Killing Fields,” but it’s also about his dawning awareness of the war in Cambodia and the grotesque human cost of it, poignantly and often hilariously counterpointed with his reminiscences (truthful “except for the banana,” he claims) about the brothel visits and drug trips and celebrity encounters that also characterized his time on the shoot. Gray’s field of expertise was narrow, but he absolutely dominated it, and it’s easy to see why, when the purity of a guy sitting with a notebook and telling a story can be, to some of us anyway, as riveting as the biggest-budget tentpole. And Demme’s skillful camerawork and editing (that keeps in some of the fluffs that Gray makes in the course of his fast-paced speech) are the unobtrusive, unsung heroes of the piece.
Director: J.C. Chandor
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Robert Redford plays the unnamed solo sailor who has to battle the elements adrift thousands of miles away from land in a damaged sailboat.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? The elements, mainly, and the rigging and supplies found on his boat as he meets each new challenge with a resourcefulness that never underestimates the difficulty of the situation or exaggerates his abilities. Occasionally he attempts to reach someone over the radio, or to attract the notice of a passing ship, but mostly Redford is reacting, dialogue-free, to whatever new way the ocean is trying to kill him, with the brief exception of a prologue, which is him reading a terse farewell note in voiceover to his family.
Does It Jump The Shark? Amazingly, no. While lesser one-man shows often lapse into telling, not showing, the bruising story of “All is Lost” feels exceptionally real and is all communicated through action and visuals, and while Redford’s performance is incredible in a physical sense, the film is so uncompromising in refusing to sentimentalize or even particularly dimensionalize him, that he becomes almost an abstraction by the end: the embodiment of the survival instinct, without us knowing what or who he is surviving for.
Is It Any Good? Terrific. “Locke” is almost unusual, these days, for being a one-man show that isn’t also a survival story (though we guess he is kind of fighting for moral or psychological survival during that car ride), but “All is Lost” is absolutely about a pared-back battle for existence, and is in its way possibly even more rigorous than “Locke.” There has been a glut of superior survival movies of late (“Gravity,” “Captain Phillips,” “A Hijacking” all qualify) but arguably this is the one that does the most with the least, and while Redford deserves, and receives, huge props for the grueling part he played, it is a magnificent achievement for Chandor, especially.
“The Noah” (1975)
Director: Daniel Bourla, his only directorial credit.
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Usually relegated to comic relief sidekick parts, probably because of his tall, burly build, lugubrious face and deep gravel-driveway voice, actor Robert Strauss takes the title role here as the literal last man left on earth, a soldier who has survived a nuclear war. It was his last role, as he died just a few months after the film got its brief release, seven years after it was shot.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? He mostly interacts with imaginary people, who are heard as off-screen voices and to whom he reacts and converses as though they were real, specifically a companion/servant called Friday, a woman called Anne-Friday and eventually a young boy, then a classroom of children, then a whole army.
Does It Jump The Shark? Sadly yes, though it’s difficult to say quite where—probably the point at which he goes charging off into the jungle brandishing an axe to kill the imaginary Friday and Anne-Friday, whom his paranoia has decided are coupling up and talking about him behind his back. Or maybe when the religious subtext goes a bit textual and Noah turns Moses.
Is It Any Good? Not really, though it is again a curious experiment, and the ambition can’t be faulted. Strauss is remarkably committed but the film is just too long, the script is too blunt, and the jittery camerawork, that often switches angles abruptly to indicate that Strauss is “talking to” some other new imaginary interlocutor, gets very distracting, very quickly. But there is a black-and-white grandeur to some of the photography, a perverse WTF weirdness to some of the more deranged scenes, and if you manage to stick with it for long enough, the quiet of the ending, after all the noise and chaos, is surprisingly elegiac and affecting.
“127 Hours” (2010)
Director: Danny Boyle
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Based on an excruciating true story, James Franco plays Aron Ralston, who got trapped in a crevasse for over five days after a hiking accident. Mind you, we are stretching the parameters quite a bit here, as with “Cast Away” as several other characters do appear.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? Initially, a pair of young girls out trekking, and then after the accident occurs, he interacts mostly with his video camera, a bird circling overhead, the elements that batter, freeze and burn him successively, his memories of family and friends, a vision of his future son and, of course, his trapped arm.
Does It Jump The Shark? No. It’s a surprisingly soulful and occasionally surreal film that is not just about resourcefulness and stamina in terms of the physical demands of survival and escape, but is even more about the psychological will it takes to survive. Somehow even moments that could tip into “Oh come on” territory, like when Ralston escapes and still has to trek for miles to find help, feel believable and searingly real. Possibly because they really did happen.
Is It Any Good? Yes indeed. While Academy recognition is no great indicator of quality, here it got it right: the film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture (it’s one of the many films from that year that can feel a bit hard done by being beaten out by “The Kings Speech“). And Franco is absolutely terrific—both broadly relatable in how he reacts to his circumstances, but also delivering a very specific portrait of this one man and his highly singular strategies for survival. It’s the kind of performance that makes us wish we saw more of this side of him—the committed actor delivering solid, deeply felt work not as a piece of performance art or a critique on celebrity, but as an integral part of a greater storytelling whole.
Director: Michael Greenspan
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Owner of one of the oddest career arcs in history, Oscar-winner Adrien Brody takes the lead here as a man who regains consciousness in the passenger seat of a wrecked car, with his wounded leg trapping him in the wreck, no memory and nothing but a dead body in the back seat for companionship.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? With a pretty young woman who we first think is a passing hiker come to rescue him, but then realize is a figment of his imagination, and a dog who becomes his companion once he finally gets out of the car.
Does It Jump The Shark? Yes, and very early on, in the aforementioned early reveal that the woman is imagined. It makes her subsequent appearances less effective, and renders a sequence where he eventually shoots her oddly pointless. It also foreshadows a small twist at the very end rather obviously and again to little effect. And in other ways the long, dialogue-free, relatively realistic scenes of Brody dragging himself around the forest, coupled with such genre staples as amnesia, a gun, a bag full of money, and a cellphone that gets no signal don’t mix together particularly well, and so we get an uncomfortable marriage of formal experiment and genre thriller.
Is It Any Good? It’s not terrible, mainly thanks to some very watchable grimacing and grunting from Brody, especially in the early part of the film when he’s still trapped in the car and we get a real sense of the frustration and confinement and peril. But when he gets out a lot of the dramatic weight is lost in fairly interminable crawling around and the gradual reveal of his returning memory is anticlimactic at best. As a low-budget quickie B-movie it’s serviceable, then, but its faint aspirations toward more are unfulfilled.
Director: Duncan Jones
Who’s Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Evergreen Playlist favorite Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut nearing the end of his three-year tenure as the sole human on a base on the Moon, which has been developed for mining.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? Largely with the mainframe computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), but also in recorded messages, with his family back on Earth, prior to a series of events that lead to him discovering another astronaut in the base. Who looks just like him.
Does It Jump The Shark? No, at least not until the very very last shot—we have to say we felt the contextualizing of Sam’s story back on Earth was unnecessary and even slightly undercut the film’s enigmatic and ambiguous atmosphere. But it’s pretty forgivable because of just how airtight everything felt to that point. “Moon” is that rare sci-fi picture that almost entirely fulfills the promise of its high concept, building a truly unearthly, surreal-edged tenor and not resorting to third-act deus ex machinas.
Is It Any Good? Brilliant, actually, and only getting better in retrospect, though it always felt like a future classic. It wears its influences on its sleeve (and large swathes of both “Silent Running” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” to which it is indebted, are themselves single-actor movies), but evolves into entirely its own animal, and Rockwell, playing dual roles, turns in one (two?) of his subtlest and most nuanced performances, hinting at the emotional exhaustion that Bell’s isolation has caused, and then at the gradual blossoming of a sense of purpose that the truth of his situation awakens in him. Appropriately, it becomes a meditation not just on what it is to be human, but on what it means to be a person.
A few other films we considered for this rundown were “No Drums, No Bugles,” a now largely unavailable Civil War-era movie featuring Martin Sheen as a conscientious objector who decides to leave his family and hide out in the woods rather than be drafted into either army. “Silent Running” we mention above in the “Moon” section, but does have significant portions involving other actors, as does the recent “Gravity.” There’s a 1974 French film called “The Man Who Sleeps” which puts an either amazingly or tiresomely Gallic/existentialist spin on the single actor film, depending on your point of view, in that the lead is not only the only actor, he also has no dialogue with his thoughts being conveyed in voiceover by a female narrator as he wanders the streets of Paris musing on being and not-being. And talking of experiments, we should also probably mention that many Warhol films only feature a single actor, though how much they’re acting and how much they’re just sleeping or, you know, getting blown on camera is up for debate, and otherwise we largely avoided documentaries such as Errol Morris‘ “The Fog of War” in which the subject is the only person who appears onscreen. Any we missed and should check out? Tell us below.