For every apparent innovation, one-man movies are as conventional as they come.
As the increased quality of television and web content has threatened cinema's status as the most sophisticated populist art form, filmmakers have found creative ways to reinvigorate the industry for the 21st century. Of the many innovations, including spectacular digital 3D and seamless computer-generated imagery, the most intriguing is the rise of the one-man movie, a genre in which one actor is required to hold the audience's attention for a sustained period of time.
Although the one-man movie has existed long before the arrival of digital technology, as evidenced by independent films like The Man Who Sleeps (1974), The Noah (1975), and Secret Honor (1984), as well as avant-garde works by Samuel Beckett, Andy Warhol, and Maya Deren, never before has there been such consistent creation of the one-man movie, especially by Hollywood studios and A-list actors. Contemporary one-man movies are non-experimental in nature, and the filmmakers work tirelessly to situate the actor within a narrative that is entertaining and easy to follow. Unlike in the past, when filmmakers used the one-man movie to challenge conventions of classical cinema, 21st century one-man movies abide by these conventions, and instead exist to shine a light on actors who can carry a film.
At first glance, one-man movies appear to be unconventional. Traditionally, movies focus on at least two characters and their relation to one another. One-man shows may be a common occurrence in the theater, but cinema is generally considered to be a collaborative process in which actors work within an ensemble to create captivating characters. Even films that center on movie stars require the development of relationships with supporting characters to further the narrative. Thus, one-man movies seem to be atypical.
However, the narratives around which many of today's one-man movies revolve are frustratingly conventional. According to film scholar David Bordwell, classical cinema privileges goal-oriented characters with clear-cut objectives, a conclusive resolution that presents a clear achievement or non-achievement of these goals, and an omnipresent narrative that is governed by cause and effect logic. For Bordwell, these conventions of classical cinema, which more or less define most mainstream movies, are different from art cinema. By contrast, art cinema favors complex characters that lack defined goals, an ambiguous resolution that remains inconclusive, and a subjective narrative that lacks the forward flow of causation.
These distinctions are necessary to make, and although it is fair to say that classical cinema and art cinema don't have to be conceived as mutually exclusive modes of cinematic practice, as some films like Run Lola Run (1998) combine the two in fascinating ways, they are helpful when trying to determine whether or not certain films can be considered conventional. One-man movies from the past, like Secret Honor, for example, owe much to the art cinema tradition, and are decidedly unconventional, whereas contemporary one-man movies like Cast Away (2000) clearly situate within the classical tradition.
The reason why contemporary one-man movies do not break away from the conventions of classical cinema is understandable. Filmmakers within the industry are searching for ways to innovate without alienating a mainstream audience, and what better way to do this than to have one actor play the only significant role in a motion picture? They create the illusion that their films are different because audiences have been conditioned to watch movies with at least two main characters, but in actuality, the narratives are as simplistic as possible. My purpose here is not to undermine the quality of these films, but to show that their conventionality is the key to the genre's success.
For most 21st century audiences, the first significant one-man movie is Cast Away. The film stars Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, a FedEx executive who survives a plane crash and must fend for himself on a deserted island. Like most one-man movies by Hollywood, there are other characters featured briefly, most notably his fiancée Kelly (Helen Hunt), but once the narrative kicks into gear, Hanks is the only character we see on screen for the majority of the film.
At the time of its release, a number of professional movie critics praised Cast Away for the bold and risky decision to leave Hanks alone on an island for a 90-minute film. Hanks' performance is certainly remarkable, but as far as narrative fiction in cinema goes, Cast Away is not exactly a break from Hollywood's conventions. The film is void of ambiguity, and from the minute Chuck is left on the island, it becomes clear that his sole objective is to survive and return to his fiancée. The audience watches to see if this goal is reached, and the simplicity of the conceit allows us to focus on Hanks' captivating screen presence.
Like other one-man movies, Cast Away cleverly incorporates other characters into the film, even if they are imaginary. Wilson, for example, is the iconic volleyball Chuck brings to life in his mind in order to stay sane, and in many ways, their relationship unfolds like it would in a buddy movie. At first they can't stand each other, but as time goes by, Chuck grows to care for Wilson.
The invention of Wilson is important for Chuck's mental health, and it's equally important for the audience's attention span. The relationship between Chuck and Wilson distracts the audience from the fact that Hanks is the only actor on screen, and thus gives the audience a relationship to care about. This relationship is central to the success of the film and Hanks' performance, and without it, the audience would likely be bored and disinterested. As simplistic as it is, the fact that Chuck talks to Wilson throughout the film fills any potential uncomfortable silences for the audience, and suggests that Cast Away never intended to be the quiet film about a man who suffers from loneliness and isolation on a deserted island. Below is a brief scene that shows how Wilson is used to engage the audience.
Cast Away is still a memorable Hollywood film, but a close analysis of its narrative shows that it is just as conventional as any other mainstream Hollywood production, and that the one-man movie is not as radical as its admirers claim.
Although most films within the genre have capitalized on the charisma of leading men, like Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) and James Franco in 127 Hours (2010), /">Gravity (2013) is noteworthy for having a woman at the center. In the film, Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer who is left alone to survive in space.
The narrative of the film is as simplistic as Cast Away, which enables the audience to appreciate Bullock's performance. Like Hanks, she carries the film, but her character talks to herself throughout, which mirrors Chuck's reliance on Wilson in Cast Away. Consider the scene below, in which Ryan discusses her fate. She is at a low point and is afraid of death, and this demonstrates the motivating force behind her decision to stay alive. This is as clear of an objective as Chuck's, and even though both characters are given time to linger in isolation, their destination is never far from view. Chuck and Ryan are put in these stressful situations so that they can get out of them, and the audience's investment in the films depends on this goal being achieved.
Like the biopic, one-man movies (or one-woman movies, in the case of Gravity) garner prestige for performers. Many of our best actors have attempted the genre, and the success of the films usually depends on their presence. All is Lost (2013) is a great film, for example, because Robert Redford delivers a powerful performance, whereas Buried (2010) is forgettable because Ryan Reynolds cannot successfully hold our attention. The narratives in one-man movies are relatively similar, and it's up to the actor to make the audience care about the character's fate. Actors that pull it off are heaped with praise, and the ones that don't struggle to recover.
The success of Tom Hardy's performance in Locke (2014) suggests that the one-man movie is here to stay. Critics and cinephiles have celebrated Hardy's ability to carry the film, and his work earned him the Best Actor award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. I admire the film, but like Cast Away and Gravity, its success relies heavily on its willingness to conform to the conventions of classical cinema.
Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a man who must drive to a hospital for personal reasons. I don't want to spoil the film for those who haven't seen it, but to say that Locke has a clear objective, the entire film is set in a car, and it's about whether or not Locke will drive to his destination in time. Hardy is the only actor who appears in the film, but he often has phone conversations with other characters while driving, which again draws comparisons to Cast Away and Gravity. In the scene below, Locke speaks with his son, and this calls attention to the filmmakers' fear of silence and ambiguity. Locke doesn't come from Hollywood, but its style and structure doesn't stray far from the conventions of classical cinema on which Hollywood relies so heavily.
Throughout cinema history, Hollywood has successfully reinvented itself, and the one-man movie is arguably its most interesting genre to date. However, to claim that it's radically different is to ignore the redundant narratives and simplistic characterizations. It's to ignore what makes these films so successful in the first place. If Hanks silently wandered a deserted island in Cast Away, audiences would be bored. If Bullock floated in space with no apparent motive in Gravity, the film wouldn't have grossed over $700 million worldwide. And if Hardy drove in a car with no destination and no one to call in Locke, we wouldn't be praising his great performance. The reason why these films work, and why filmmakers continue to make them, is because for every apparent innovation, the films are as conventional as they come.
Splash image: Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) arguing with Wilson in Cast Away (2000)