Most movies will focus on a group of characters which can keep things fresh and interesting, but not all movies. Some films revolve almost entirely around a single character, with very few, if any, other characters visible throughout the movie, which can result in them being either fantastic or awful. These “one-man show” films must be powered not only by an intriguing storyline that absorbs your attention, but also by a performer of the highest standard who can keep you engaged throughout. These films are often showcases of these actors’ incredible talent, but have also been some wonderful stories too.
2011’s Wrecked is a gripping thriller directed by Michael Greenspan, which stars Adrien Brody as a nameless man who wakes up severely injured in a wrecked car in the bottom of a ravine. He is suffering from amnesia and struggles to piece together what happens, but has hallucinations of a woman. He hears about an armed robbery and finds the ID of the robber below the passenger seat, leading him to assume that he committed the robbery. He manages to drag himself into the woods and finds a cell phone but cannot get any service, and after days of dragging himself along he soon manages to piece together what happened prior to the crash. Whilst it may not be the greatest story, there is no denying Brody’s talent and it is his excellent performance that ensures that this remains an intriguing film.
9. I Am Legend
Whilst it is true that there are a few other characters in Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend, most would agree that it is a one-man show with Will Smith starring as Robert Neville, a U.S. Army virologist. After a virus has wiped out most of mankind and turned some into nocturnal mutants, Neville is the last human in New York and he must survive whilst attempting to create a remedy. This is Will Smith at his best as he ensures that the film remains engaging, but of course you also have to mention his brilliant German Sheppard companion, Sam. Sam is an important character as his only companion, and what most remember from this film is Sam’s utterly heartbreaking death where Neville is forced to kill her after she becomes infected. Taking place in an isolated and post-apocalyptic New York, there is some fantastic scenery throughout.
8. Silent Running
One-man shows are typically thought of as a more modern subgenre of film, but there are also some excellent examples from decades past, most notably 1972’s Silent Running. A post-apocalyptic science fiction film, it is set in a time where all plant life on Earth has become extinct, bar a few specimens which have been preserved in greenhouses that are aboard spaceships. An astronaut and botanist, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), is then ordered to destroy these greenhouses. He decides against this, and instead opts to save the animals and plants on his ship and to venture deeper into space. Whilst there are a few other characters (plus a few robots), it is largely a one-man show and Dern ensures that it is a highly entertaining watch throughout, as his character boldly chooses between the last remaining plant life and mankind.
A film best avoided if you are claustrophobic, Buried explores many people’s biggest fear—being buried alive. There are a few characters in this film, but it is essentially a one-man show for Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds plays an American civilian truck driver who is working in Iraq when he becomes ambushed by terrorists. He awakens to find himself buried alive in a wooden coffin with only a phone and lighter. With the phone he is able to speak to his captors and the State Department, but ultimately it is 90 minutes of excruciating footage of Ryan Reynolds in close confinement as he desperately hopes for escape. However, with the government refusing to work with terrorists, things are looking bleak for his character before the film reaches an unforgettable conclusion. It is a brilliant performance from Reynolds and he got to prove himself as more than a comedy actor.
Unlike most one-man show films where a character is isolated, 2013’s Locke by Steven Knight follows one man as he drives from Birmingham to London, during which he holds 36 phone calls as his life begins to crumble around him. You can hear all of these phone calls, but it is only this man, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) that is seen. The day before, when he is overseeing a large concrete pour, Ivan learns that a woman he had a one night stand with has gone into labor. Not wanting to abandon the child like his father did to him, Locke leaves his job, wife and kids behind to be there for the birth. Only an actor of Hardy’s caliber could make this a compelling watch, and you get an up close and personal view of this man who must deal with the consequences of his bold decision.
Nearly all one-man shows deal with topics including isolation and loneliness, and there is no better setting to explore these films than outer space. This is evident with Duncan Jones’s Moon, which follows Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who is nearing the end of a three-year solitary mission mining helium on the far side of the moon. There are a few other minor characters and an AI computer system voiced by none other than Kevin Spacey, but overall it is down to Sam Rockwell to keep the audience engaged, and he certainly manages this as it is a very thought-provoking movie. Two weeks before returning to Earth, Sam begins having visions of a teenage girl before things turn very strange. Once the credits roll, you will be pondering the film for days to come, which is thanks to an intriguing story and a powerful performance from Rockwell.
4. All Is Lost
One common theme in one-man shows is survival, as often the protagonist finds themselves isolated from civilization. J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost stars Robert Redford as a man lost at sea who must battle the elements, with a few storms creating some heart-in-mouth moments that make you forget there is hardly any dialogue in this film at all. This is truly a one-man show, and an excellent one at that, and Redford puts in a stunning performance as a man desperate to survive who struggles against the harsh, unforgiving and unrelenting ocean. He must also come to terms with his own mortality as survival looks increasingly unlikely. It is a unique film due to the lack of dialogue and characters, but it is an unforgettable watch and also a compelling film which you can’t take your eyes off of.
3. Secret Honor
1984’s Secret Honor was first a play, but then adapted for the big screen in what turned out to be a fantastic one-man show which stars Philip Baker Hall completely on his own. The story follows Richard Nixon in his New Jersey home before his fall from grace, and here he paces endlessly in his study as he delivers essentially what is a lengthy monologue about his life and career. This takes place with only a bottle of whiskey and a loaded revolver as props, ensuring that it is a tense and rage-filled exploration of his soul which is captured by CCTV cameras and a running tape recorder. This may not sound like the most fun of films, but Philip Baker Hall’s incredible performance ensures that it is a gripping watch, particularly for anyone with an interest in Nixon, politics and American history.
2. 127 Hours
The excruciating 127 Hours from Danny Boyle is an excellent showcase for James Franco to flaunt his brilliant acting skills, as here he plays the real life canyoneer Aron Ralston. Ralston famously became trapped by a boulder in a slot canyon, which resulted in him savagely amputating his own arm to survive. He created a memoir which this film is based on. Whilst it is interspersed with flashbacks that involve other characters, this is very much a one-man show as the character not only has to do whatever he can to survive, but he also reflects on his entire life under the extraordinary circumstances he finds himself in. It is a breathtaking performance from Franco and a film which is beautiful, inspirational and completely gut wrenching. It earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for Franco.
1. Cast Away
Everybody was aware that Tom Hanks was much more than a comedy actor following performances in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but Hanks reminded us once again with his unforgettable performance in Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away. Here, Hanks plays a man, Chuck Noland, who survives a plane crash but becomes stranded on a desert island. Not only is this a film about man vs. nature, but it is also about a man struggling to remain sane and somebody who is forced to re-evaluate his entire life whilst completely cut off from society and unsure if he will survive. Hanks’ astonishing performance forces you to consider everything you take for granted, and he ensures it is a powerful, emotional and gripping watch. This is furthered by the very emotional and convincing relationship he forges with a volleyball, Wilson, and their heartbreaking separation is now an iconic cinema moment.