The Top 10 Single-Character Movies
Movies are a collaborative art form. It takes scores of people to take a film from conception to the screen, most of whom you never see.
So it’s a real accomplishment when a film gives you a sense of solitude, of loneliness or isolation, because that is the greatest of fictions; there was no actual solitude happening when the camera was running (even the lens provides some sense of observer and observed).
I’m interested in films that for a significant portion of their running times have only a single actor in front of the camera. Stories about people alone, cut off from society by preference or misfortune. How long can you tell a story that way without completely abandoning the language of cinema? Is it even possible for a character to live and breathe all on their own?
Before you ask, no, we’re not going to be talking about Cast Away. In addition to it being the boringly obvious choice, everyone forgets that the entire first and third acts of that film are completely filled with people. The second act provides a tremendous example of the kind of filmmaking I’m talking about, but let’s give preference to the films that really go for it, that absolutely minimize the appearance by other characters and give over the frame as a whole to a single character.
Such films are remarkable artifacts. They succeed in their goals to varying degrees, but they do so within a fascinating set of constraints, some technical, some on the storytelling, but mostly (I’d argue) on the casting: What kind of actor has the unique combination of craft and magnetism to hold our attention all by themselves?
10. The Telephone (1988)
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A strange and ultimately unsuccessful film (both artistically and commercially), Whoopi Goldberg’s solitary Robin-Williams-does-Godot-esque tragicomedy nevertheless deserves a wider awareness than it currently has (at least according to the Flickchart globals). Except for brief single-minute appearances by Elliot Gould, John Heard, and Amy Wright, Whoopi owns the entirety of the post-title screen time, and she does not shirk from holding our attention.
Okay, she’s not very funny, but apparently director Rip Torn(!) thought it was best to hobble one of America’s great improvisers by chaining her to a somewhat mild script. The film fails to properly set the character’s stakes or why she is so constrained in this room, and the whole enterprise ends up feeling like a student film (which is just depressing considering the talent in front of and behind the camera).
But it would be completely unwatchable if it was anyone other than Whoopi up there. The end result is a worthwhile experience, if only for the “experiment” of it all.
9. Oxygen (2021)
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This French film suffers in ranking at the time of this writing due only to its relative youth; I guarantee you this will rise, due to its unique combination of constrained environment, science fiction setting, and the genuine mystery surrounding our heroine’s situation. Liz, played by the perfectly cast Melanie Laurent, awakes in a hyperbaric chamber which is running out of (you guessed it) oxygen. More so than any of our other entries in this list, she is confronted not only with surviving where she is, and hopefully getting out, but also in understanding how she got there and who she is.
This plot-convenient amnesia that powers the mystery allows her to perfectly stand in for the audience as we discover and “remember” along with her in real-time, putting the pieces together and attempting to solve the Rubik’s cube of death ahead of the ticking clock. In many ways, this is the purest example of a Hitchcock-style mystery-thriller ever made, since its built-in constraints eliminate much of the chaff that can clog such films. Oxygen is lean and mean.
8. The Noah (1975)
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An obscure film thought for decades to have been lost but now available on YouTube (like the rest of human civilization), The Noah represents the trope of “the last man on earth”, which powers many other almost solitary films (I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth). But most such films lack the “discipline” (or stubbornness, or snobbery) to really just have “the last man” on the screen, and that’s it. The plot’s conflicts all come in the form of hallucinations which we hear but never see: characters are introduced and fade away, in accordance with the progression of (what we eventually understand to be) Noah’s oncoming madness.
Robert Strauss magnificently owns the screen as Noah, equal parts naturalistic and theatrical, as we all our when we think no one is watching. The message of the film echoes throughout all the films on this list, which is that civilization and human society are a kind of disease that we carry with us, even when we’re alone. Ordinarily we exist in a healthy and somewhat balanced opposition to the forces of civilization, but when those forces are taken away, what happens to all those parts of us whose purpose is to be that opposition? What now are they in opposition to?
7. The Shallows (2016)
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After a nearly-disqualifying prologue during which Blake Lively is driven to the beach by a chatty local, the rest of the film is essentially just her battle of wits and nerves with a great white shark whose feeding territory she’s surfed into. (Until an equally nearly-disqualifying coda when she returns with her family.)
I’ve given The Shallows the greatest leeway in terms of the rules of this list for several reasons. First, this is a rare female-led example of this subgenre. Lively was inspired to take this part by her husband Ryan Reynolds‘s experience making Buried (which we’ll talk about in a moment), and this forms a nice balancing counterpart to that other film. (Any festival programmers out there?)
Second, this is a rare non-claustrophobic example of this subgenre; great cinematographic effort is made to reinforce the vast distances of open water that surround our bleeding heroine on all sides. We are constrained to a single character by space instead of by walls, a fascinating inversion.
Third, I wanted to recognize this film for managing to remain “merely” a Hollywood action/adventure movie, without drowning itself in darkness or artistic self-importance. Of all the films in this list, this is only one that could be called “fun,” the only one smelling of popcorn. The rest smell of sweat and recycled bad breath.
6. Secret Honor (1984)
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With Secret Honor we veer dangerously close to a “filmed stage monologue” for the very simple reason that the film was indeed based on a one-person play. But with Robert Altman behind the camera, you are going to get a film regardless of the source material.
The structure is very simple: a fictionalized Richard Nixon, accompanied by a bottle of whiskey and a loaded revolver for some reason, rants about America. But this is not merely the whining of a power-mad charlatan who got found out; that would be easy enough to write. Instead, playwrights Freed and Stone weave a juicy deep-state conspiracy tale in between the alternating poles of Nixon’s anger at himself and anger at America.
Nixon is ostensibly dictating a memoir, but what he’s really doing is cleansing his soul with the fire of bitter misanthropy. The tale that he tells, about the artificial construction of the war in Vietnam as a smoke screen for his handlers’ heroin empire, is either his ultimate confession of stooge-hood after a lifetime of luxuriating in power, or it is one last giant lie that he hopes to use to finally convince America to love him.
Pauline Kael said that seeing Philip Baker Hall‘s performance as Nixon was “like seeing the man on the tapes,” and that is the best description of the purpose of this film: to personify the ogre that we all eventually internalized from the stories. This could not have been done with a screen full of people (though it has been tried). We need to see him lonely and alone, an impotent ball of rage locked in a basement somewhere, screaming about Kissinger, the only audience being yet another slowly turning reel of tape.
5. All Is Lost (2013)
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As if there were any doubt about Robert Redford‘s credentials as a movie star. Not only do we not have any other people, we have only 51 words of dialog. Everything else is just Redford’s Utah-leather face trying to fix his boat.
It sounds almost painfully “indie,” one of those self-congratulatory “concept” films that succeed only in as much as they succeed in their concept. But this film succeeds as a film, driven by the very real, and realistic, disasters that come with open-ocean boating, as well as the instant pathos and connection with our good friend Robert Redford. At this point in his career, no screen time needs to be spent for him to “win us over to his side” ; we are already “on board,” and we are concerned about his well-being, right alongside him.
4. Buried (2010)
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From an era before Ryan Reynolds began to tack strongly into comedy, we have this entry from the peak(?) of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, when the sordid and uncomfortable privatization of the occupation brought with it new opportunities for conflict and new kinds of stories to tell. Reynolds’s character awakes from being IED’d to find himself buried in a wooden coffin, his captors calling on a cell phone demanding a ransom he knows neither his country nor his company will pay.
At times, the urgency of the situation works against the film’s need to make some comment on the moral and geopolitical issues at play. Reynolds’s effective projection of his terror ironically strips away all need for consideration of any factors that lie outside this wooden box.
This film sets the record in this list for the smallest square footage of set afforded to our lone-character, and it does strictly adhere to a “no other characters in the frame” policy (though some do appear in a cell phone video). As such, it is a tribute to Reynolds’s star power and personal magnetism (as well as Rodrigo Cortés‘s ability to communicate it) that the film succeeds in being a gripping and emotionally connected film.
3. Locke (2013)
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Compared to some of the other films in our list, the circumstances that isolate Tom Hardy in Locke are relatively mundane. Locke is driving from Birmingham to London to be present at the birth of a child whom he fathered during a one-night stand. The on-screen action consists of thirty-six speakerphone calls that take place inside his BMW X5, calls which spell the dissolution of his marriage, his career, and any sense of self he had before he started this drive.
This is a sad and morose film, a tragic family drama that due to the pervasive telecommunications of our era now can take place even when you’re alone. Again we are reliant on the star’s magnetism to hold our attention, but we are also literally in constant motion for the entirety of the film, which gives even the soft and still scenes a sense of direction and urgency.
2. 127 Hours (2010)
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If not the most beloved by Flickcharters, it’s certainly the most critically-acclaimed film on our list. James Franco portrays the real-life Aron Ralston who spends a few days married to a boulder in Utah. The media campaign around the film was such that everyone knows he cuts his arm off in the end; the challenge was to construct a story that delivered on more than its body-horror punchline.
Given the incredible (though actually, literally, credible) constraints of the scenario, Franco delivers a performance that manages to describes all of the inevitable phases of fear, regret, self-recrimination, periodic self-awareness, and ultimately a series of hallucinations, which go beyond merely being symptoms of his biological decline and manage (through Danny Boyle‘s bold and dynamic style) to communicate a small-scale, Christ-in-the desert moment where old ways are left behind and new ways are struck out upon.
This being a mainstream film, it could not resist having a few ancillary characters appear in the first and third acts, but it is Franco and Franco alone who owns the center of the frame, making this a prime example of this difficult subgenre, attempted only by the bravest and most talented actors and filmmakers.
1. Moon (2009)
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At the top of our list, we have a film that celebrates (or demonizes) solitude qua solitude more so than any other film we’ve considered. Sam Rockwell plays a solitary lunar miner who uncovers an inhumane plot by his corporate overlords to keep him isolated for the rest of his unnaturally-shortened life.
In pursuit of this almost Clancy-esque industrial mystery, this film strays close to the edge of this list’s criteria by introducing (fairly early) a clone of Sam Rockwell, and the two of him work together to solve the puzzle that has entwined their fates. They are technically distinct characters, but Rockwell’s performances are coherent enough to understand them both to be the “same,” which is a challenge that none of the other nine actors in this list had to face.
But rather than have these doppelgangers disqualify Moon, I’d say it extraqualifies it, for it is the very presence of these other Sams that drives home, first for us then for Sam 1, just how truly alone he his. It is the presence of the doppelganger, and what it means for the nature of Sam’s existence, that reinforces just how out of reach any hope or help or chance for companionship will ever be for him.
Some of the films on this list seem to be making this allegorical case: that it is in the nature of our existence that we enter and leave it alone, and that in between any feelings to the contrary are temporary aberrations.
But it is just as reasonable (and ever so much more cinematic) to see intense and prolonged solitude as a catastrophe. We are social creatures, defining ourselves by likenesses and contrasts to others of our species, and taking cues as to the meaning of our lives from how we feel in various company. When that only company is ourselves, strange things and magical things happen. Not always for the best.