Great actors love other actors, thriving on the exchange of energy and ideas in front of the cameras to hopefully capture something unique, a moment that will be preserved forever. But for a handful of roles there is no-one else for the actor to riff with or lash out at, and the performer is alone on the screen with just the guidance of the screenplay and the faith of the filmmaker to surmount their isolation. Whether they’re swathed in silence or illuminated by monologues, a film consisting either mostly or entirely of a single actor’s performance is a high-wire act. As exemplified by the 10 below, the best are something special.
Robert Redford: All Is Lost (2013)
Robert Redford had long been the Hollywood leading man who defined himself by the way his character held himself in regards to others, whether as a romantic lead or a dramatic presence. In J.C. Chandor’s new film, All is Lost, the 77-year-old actor has only the confines of a sinking boat and the vast solitude of the ocean to contend with. The nameless, besieged sailor silently reveals himself through his industrious actions, but the longer this nautical thriller continues the more profound his existential battle becomes, until a simple shave is rendered as the final defiant act of a long life.
Sam Rockwell: Moon (2009)
Given half a chance, Sam Rockwell will overwhelm his co-stars. He’s a shifty, fluid actor who makes deception, or the suggestion of it, a small part of every performance he gives. In Duncan Jones’ sombre, self-enclosed science-fiction tale, the isolation of a mining base on the moon is the perfect location for Rockwell’s Sam Bell to question everything about his orderly life. Supported by the worryingly neutral tones of a computer system voiced by Kevin Spacey, the lunar engineer is forced to query his very identity, brilliantly playing a man literally compelled to confront another side of himself.
Bruce Dern: Silent Running (1972)
The Nebraska star projected wary instability in his early roles, as if there was a misplayed note to his personality, and special effects pioneer-turned-director Douglas Trumbull made great use of it in this 1972 film. Dern’s Freeman Lowell is a dedicated botanist on a futuristic space freighter preserving the remnants of the Earth’s lost natural landscape. When the project is abandoned, he snaps and kills his crewmates to flee beyond Saturn aboard the lush Valley Forge, accompanied by a handful of robots (forebears of Pixar’s Wall-E) and the lurking threat of madness. Dern makes the angry loneliness of the tragic exile palpable.
Ryan Reynolds: Buried (2010)
After Van Wilder: Party Liaison, who didn’t want to put Ryan Reynolds in a box? This claustrophobic thriller from Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes stars the usually loquacious actor as an American contractor in Iraq who awakens in a buried coffin with a lighter, a mobile phone and a limited amount of oxygen to his name. Barely able to move, let alone respond to others, Reynolds’ Paul Conroy is tormented by his captors and strung along by his country, all the while growing more desperate as the fractured box steadily starts to fill with sand. Reynolds captures the pungent, primal urge to live, even as it fades away.
Martina Gedeck: The Wall (2012)
“I wasn’t old enough to think seriously about suicide,” observes the unnamed female protagonist of this sombre German drama, who awakens one morning to find that an unknown force field has turned her weekend away in a mountain valley cabin into permanent isolation. Unable to escape, Martina Gedeck’s lone woman must adapt to her new confines, accompanied by a dog and forced to comprehend boundaries so stark they render her a figure in some unknowing cosmic installation. The metaphoric power of Julian Polsler’s movie is obvious, but what anchors the biting alienation is the deeply felt performance by Gedeck; the solitary shades her every scene.
Tom Hanks: Cast Away (2000)
Opening and closing sequences aside, the emotional strength of Robert Zemeckis’ drama resides in the performance of Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, a systems analyst forced to rebuild his world when a plane crash leaves him washed up along on a deserted tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. The film takes Hank’s affable ability to relate and turns it upside down – Chuck’s loneliness is Hanks’ desperation at the lack of interaction, with nothing but a bloodied volleyball named Wilson for company. There is Hollywood ingenuity and the requisite weight loss to mark the four years marooned, but there’s despair impinging on everything Hanks does.
Philip Baker Hall: Secret Honor (1984)
The veteran American character actor Philip Baker Hall received welcome recognition late in his career, when he became part of the acting ensemble assembled by Paul Thomas Anderson for his initial features (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia). But one of his finest roles is in this little known work from Robert Altman’s lost era, where the actor plays disgraced former U.S. President Richard Nixon. Wandering his deserted home, bottle and revolver in hand, Hall’s Nixon is a mess of vindictive self-justification and vitriolic outbursts. The conspiracy theory angle is unnecessary, as Hall is compelling as the fallen despot.
Catherine Samie: The Last Letter (2002)
Technically, Catherine Samie’s Anna Semyonovna is not alone is this sombre 2002 drama: she is surrounded by the many ghosts that have come to define her life. A rare fictional work by noted documentarian Frederick Wiseman, The Last Letter is a French language adaptation of a chapter from Vasily Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate, where a Jewish doctor in a Ukrainian city occupied by the Nazis during World War II delivers a monologue based on her final letter to her son. The tragic fate of millions is distilled down to a single experience, and Samie, a veteran of French stage and screen, is hauntingly aware of what is to come.
Spalding Gray: Swimming to Cambodia (1987)
The late Spalding Gray was well-suited to the concept of the lone performance, having excelled with theatrical monologues that were repeatedly brought to the big screen by directors as diverse as Steven Soderbergh, Nick Broomfield and Jonathan Demme. It was the latter who made the first adaptation, placing Gray at a desk for lessons in life supposedly tied to his experiences shooting The Killing Fields that could swiftly spiral into cosmic rants, the alternately refined and harried rhythms of his language matched by the lighting changes and the unorthodox rhythms of Laurie Anderson’s score. Warning: marijuana users may be extremely freaked out by Gray’s memories of a bad trip.
Tom Hardy: Locke (2013)
Just arrived on the festival circuit, having debuted at Venice, British writer and now director Steven Knight puts the burly Tom Hardy in a vehicle speeding south to London as a man comes to grips with a faltering life over the course of a single car journey. Locke arrives 50 years after the Hindi film Yaadein, where Sunil Dutt plays a remorseful man whose discovery of an empty family home launches an extended reminiscence of his life and failings. Between them, the old film and the new one remind us that there will always be actors ready to stand alone before a camera.