Warning: This list may contain traces of spoilers, and may have come into contact with spoilers from other movies.
The one man, one location film is a rarity in the world of cinema, but 2010 not only saw two of them get made, but both movies – the Danny Boyle film 127 Hours and the Rodrigo Cortes film Buried – opened to positive reviews! While both of these movies could very easily be accused of being gratuitous vanity projects for their stars, I believe that the rare beast that is the one man, one location movie can force filmmakers to get creative with their craft and explore the boundaries and limitations of the cinematic medium. In honour of 2010, which inadvertantly gave us two of the best one man shows in recent memory, I’ve compiled a list of five great movies about one guy trapped in one place.
5. Phone Booth
The Man: Colin Farrell, playing New York publicist Stu Shepard
The Location: A phone booth
The Movie: Slick, fast-talking Stu Shepard answers a ringing phone in a nearby phone booth. The voice on the other end tells him that there’s a sniper rifle pointed right at his head, and if he hangs up he will be shot. Not a bad premise, and the movie was a decent thriller. Director Joel Schumacher did not confine the movie to the interior of the titular phone booth, however, and used many effects like splitscreens and cutaways to keep the movie going.
The Man: Sam Rockwell, playing lunar space station operator Sam Bell
The Location: A Lunar Industries mining base on the moon
The Movie: In this claustrophobic and ponderous sci-fi gem, Sam Rockwell plays a man at the end of a three year solitary stint mining the element helium-3 alone on the moon. Well, he’s not ENTIRELY alone, because he has a computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company. But still, Rockwell is the only guy on screen in this movie, so I think it should count. Rockwell does a great job of keeping Moon on track, and delivers an awesome performance.
3. Cast Away
The Man: Tom Hanks, playing FedEx executive Chuck Noland
The Location: A deserted tropical island
The Movie: Tom Hanks puts in a terrific performance as Chuck Noland, a normal guy who finds himself stranded on a deserted island following a huge plane crash. Cast Away sets itself apart from the other films on this list in a couple of interesting ways. All one man, one location movies need someone for the protagonist to talk to in order for the audience to gain insight into the character’s thoughts. It may be over the telephone, as in Phone Booth, or it may be with a computer, as in Moon, but in Cast Away, the sounding board for our hero is a volleyball. In fact, Tom Hanks does such a good job with his performance that you get really emotionally attached to Wilson the volleyball – a difficult feat to pull off! Cast Away also sets itself apart by having very little non-diegetic music. Mostly the soundtrack consists of ambient island noises, making Chuck Noland seem that much more isolated and alone. Finally, Cast Away stays focused on Chuck Noland for the entire time he is on the island. There are no cutaways or flashbacks – you are there with him, alone, for the majority of the film’s running time.
2. 127 Hours
The Man: James Franco, playing hiker and rock climber Aron Ralston
The Location: A crevasse in Robber’s Roost, Utah
The Movie: Based on the true story of mountaineer Aron Ralston who found himself trapped in a crevasse after a loose boulder pinned his arm to the rock wall. After 127 hours of waiting, Ralston finally amputated his own arm with his multitool and managed to hike over eight miles before being rescued. Danny Boyle employs a frenetic and energetic visual style to keep the movie coasting along at a rapid pace, and uses cutaways, flashbacks, hallucinations, and Ralston talking to his video camera in order to show us what’s on his mind. James Franco also does a fantastic job of carrying the bulk of the film, and embues his performance with such depth and emotion that watching him cut off his arm is a gruelling experience indeed.
The Man: Ryan Reynolds, playing Paul Conroy, a U.S. contractor working in Iraq
The Location: The interior of a wooden coffin
The Movie: This is the film that inspired the list. Paul Conroy wakes up to find that he has been buried alive with a handful of small objects – among them a lighter, a flashlight, a pocket knife and a cell phone. When the cell phone rings, the reason for Paul’s imprisonment begins to become clear, as the voice on the other end of the line instructs him to make a video and post it on Youtube, demanding five million dollars in ransom money. In a move that I find surprising, original, and totally effective, director Rodrigo Cortes and writer Charles Sparling decided to set the entire film, from start to finish, inside the coffin. There are no cutaways or flashbacks to give the audience a breath of fresh air. As you watch Buried, you too are trapped in that coffin, and it rapidly becomes an exercise in claustrophobia. It’s quite an impressive achievement that the film works as well as it does, and as someone who watches a lot of movies, I found Buried to be a fascinating cinematic experiment. It might not be the best movie on this list in terms of quality, but this is the essence of the one man, one location film. Oh, and Ryan Reynolds, like all the other actors on this list, does a great job of keeping the audience invested.