All By Myself: Movies About Isolation

March 30, 2020
With a Coronavirus lockdown upon us, and self-isolation a new way of life, here are some highly disparate on-screen depictions of going it alone.

ROBINSON CRUSOE (1954)

Daniel Dafoe’s seminal 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe, is the truly definitive tale of isolation, the story of a castaway who spends 28 years on a remote tropical  island near Trinidad, encountering all manner of threats and challenges before finally being rescued. Though he procures a native companion whom he calls Friday, Crusoe is alone for much of the novel. Dafoe’s tome has been broadly adapted multiple times (including 1964’s self-explanatory Robinson Crusoe On Mars, and 1975’s revisionist Man Friday, which shines a light on the story’s obviously racist overtones), and one of the most interesting versions is undoubtedly 1954’s Robinson Crusoe, which was directed by famed surrealist Luis Bunuel (The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, Belle Du Jour), and stars Dan O’Herlihy in a superb Oscar nominated performance. See also: Robinson Crusoe (1997), Cast Away (2000).

GRAVITY (2013)

Early in the Oscar winning Gravity, first-time astronaut, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and easygoing veteran, Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are bundled into instant, life-threatening jeopardy when debris crashes into their space shuttle during a space-walk, leaving them drifting alone and helpless in orbit. In an act of stunning self-sacrifice, Kowalski separates himself from Stone to save her, and is sent hurtling to his death. Now truly alone, the extraordinarily brave and highly resourceful Ryan Stone is forced to grab hold of her own destiny. Accompanied solely by her own thoughts, and though teetering on the abyss of futility and depression, Dr. Ryan Stone’s true character emerges through her painful bout of involuntary self-isolation. See also: Countdown (1967), Marooned (1969), The Martian (2015).

ALL IS LOST (2013)

Playing out almost like Gravity on water, All Is Lost is an even more unforgiving depiction of enforced solitude, as Robert Redford is literally the only character in the film, and speaks no dialogue for its entirety. Written and directed by J.C Chandor (whose other films are the far chattier Margin Call, A Most Violent Year and Triple Frontier), All Is Lost follows an unnamed veteran yachtsman (Redford), who wakes up somewhere in The Indian Ocean to discover that his vessel has been hit by a stray shipping container, and has begun to gradually take on water. For the rest of the film, the lone seaman fights to survive. “He became that person,” J.C Chandor told FilmInk of Robert Redford. “His wife visited a couple of times, but he was totally alone. He just shut himself down.” See also: 127 Hours (2007), Solo (2008), Kon-Tiki (2012), The Mercy (2017), Arctic (2018).

HERMITS (2015)

In the late 1980s, Bill Porter (an expert on Chinese religious and philosophical texts) travelled to the Zhongnan mountains to determine if China’s Buddhist hermit tradition still existed despite the opposing forces of Chinese communism. The answer was a resounding yes, with dozens of monks and nuns still leading remote, solitary lives in quiet contemplation, re-examining and strengthening the depth of their faith. Porter’s resulting book, Road To Heaven: Encounters With Chinese Hermits, became an important tome for westerners fascinated by Buddhism. In 2015, Porter returned to the region with documentary directors He Shiping, Fu Peng and Zhou Chengyu, whose film Hermits captures the incredible sense of isolation and enlightenment that the Chinese monks experience. “Our life in the mountains feels like slow motion in the movies,” says one hermit master. Graceful and hypnotic, the film shows that self-isolation can lead to transcendence.

LOCKE (2013)

Locke is a fascinating one-man vehicular show, with the great Tom Hardy as the eponymous British everyman. All set inside a car, the action plays out in real time as construction engineer, Ivan Locke, drives down the motorway on a life-changing journey. Set on the eve of the biggest job that his company has ever dealt with, Locke abandons his work to head to London, where a woman he got pregnant in a one-night stand is about to give birth. Along the way, he fields incessant calls – from his panic-stricken mistress, his infuriated boss and, crucially, his unwitting wife. For a film with no real action per se, Locke is incredibly gripping, as Tom Hardy excavates extreme emotion while also having to remain relatively calm. All alone in his car, Ivan Locke has to deal with the mounting problems of his life in complete (if only temporary) isolation. See also: Vanishing Point (1971), Duel (1971), Secret Honor (1984).

MOON (2009)

Set in a near future in which a practically infinite fuel source, Helium-3, can now be harvestable directly from the moon’s surface, Moon stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, a downbeat space worker frayed around the edges from his three years on the dark side of the moon, isolated from human contact or even live video conversations with his young family. Alone with his cloying helper robot, GERTY (voiced by, eek, Kevin Spacey), Sam’s job is to unload filled fuel containers from giant mining rovers and then shoot them back to earth for collection. Stricken with nasty injuries and bizarre visions after being involved in an accident, Sam eventually discovers – in almost Twilight Zone style – that what’s actually happening is far freakier than even his freakiest hallucinations. See also: Silent Running (1972), Solaris (1972/2002), Passengers (2016).

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

In these days of self-isolation and home-schooling, the excellent 2016 drama Captain Fantastic suddenly has a strange prescience, as determined free thinker Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen in typically cracking form) lives far from society with his six children in the wilderness of Washington State, teaching them life’s lessons on his terms and way out of reach of the US school system. Ben, like his late wife, has a firm mistrust of American society and instills this in his children, as well as a rough-hewn form of survivalism. Like all children, however, the Cash kids have ideas of their own that veer away from those of their parents, and fractures eventually start to form in this tightly bonded off-the-grid loner family. Funny and deeply moving, Captain Fantastic is a superb portrait of a family living alone. See also: Leave No Trace (2018).

INTO THE WILD (2007)

Adapted from the book by Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild tells the initially inspiring but ultimately tragic story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who takes off to Alaska, where he plans to live off the grid. But what begins as a bracing exercise in youthful wanderlust ends in isolation and crippling solitude, as McCandless finds himself stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, surrounded by rising rivers, growing snow and a harsh, unforgiving environment. Long, detailed and elegiac, Into The Wild is an at times staggering experience. Director Sean Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier depict the American landscape with all the wonder and horror that it deserves, and every facet of the film comes dangerously close to perfection. Into The Wild shows that the desire to be alone can be dangerous indeed. See also: Wild (2014).

BREAKING BAD: SEASON 5 EPISODE “GRANITE STATE”

In the much loved TV series Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White is a high school science teacher who turns master meth maker. In the show’s fifth and final season, after inspiring and avoiding much carnage, Walter makes the decision to “disappear” in order to keep his family safe. He enlists Robert Forster’s Ed Galbraith, a specialist who helps criminals vanish without a trace, and then begin lives with new identities. Part of the process involves hiding out for months on end in a remote cabin in snowy New Hampshire, with no phone, no internet, and absolutely no contact with anyone else – self-isolation in its purest, most devastating form. Ed stops by once a month with supplies, and that’s it. Walt eventually begins to wither and fade, and in one heartbreaking scene, is so crippled by loneliness that he pays the purely mercenary and largely unfeeling Ed $10,000 just to hang around for an extra couple of hours to keep him company. If this is a true picture of potential self-isolation for some people, then we’re all in trouble! See also: Oldboy (2003/2013).

THE REVENANT (2015)

The Oscar winning Leonardo DiCaprio wholly inhabits the character of Hugh Glass, an experienced wilderness tracker working as a guide to a bedraggled crew of fur trappers plying their trade in The Rockies in the 1820s. After being mauled by a bear, the barely alive Glass is then betrayed and left for dead by Tom Hardy’s trapper, John Fitzgerald. His body battered and eviscerated, the determined and highly skilled Hugh Glass then begins a long and torturous journey back to what passes for civilisation, raging for revenge against his betrayer. The “survival” genre – in which a lone protagonist is pursued through hostile territory by a determined enemy, as exemplified in films as varied as The Naked Prey and Lone Survivor – trades in a particularly threatening and dangerous brand of isolation, and the stunningly original and technically accomplished The Revenant is one of its best examples. See also: Soldier Blue (1970), Jeremiah Johnson (1972).

THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD (2018)

Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie – Personal Shopper) wakes one morning to find himself living in a nightmare: an army of zombies has invaded the streets of Paris and he is the lone survivor. Holed up in a classic Parisian apartment, Sam contemplates his bleak future and how he will survive the solitude, indulges in some very loud drum solos, and soon discovers that he may not be alone after all. Also starring Golshifteh Farahani (Paterson), and the iconic French actor Denis Lavant (Holy Motors) as “one of the greatest zombie creations since the brainless consumers of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Lavant’s role helps complicate the movie’s soul,” according to IndieWire.

If you liked this story, check out our feature “The Full Corona: Non-Escapist Home Viewing.”

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