Adrien Brody won an Oscar for his role in The Pianist (2002), as a musician clinging to life in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. But the rigours of playing a Holocaust survivor for Roman Polanski seem to pale next to what he endured shooting Wrecked in the forests of Vancouver Island for Montreal director Michael Greenspan. Cast as a man who wakes up in a car wreck at the bottom of a ravine with a broken leg and no memory of how he got there, this method actor took his role to heart. Though it was February, Brody performed dangerous stunts in frigid whitewater. He ate ants. He fished a drowning worm from a pool, and chewed it. To get into character, he even slept outside one night, with just a flashlight and Werner Herzog’s biography.
Welcome to the new age of screen acting as an extreme sport—Survivor: The Solo Challenge. These days it seems the ultimate test for a male thespian is to shoot a movie alone in some wilderness, enduring physical hardship, without a soul to talk to. We’ve seen it before. As a plane-crash survivor in Cast Away, Tom Hanks grew a beard and co-starred with a volleyball. And as an escaped prisoner of war, Christian Bale spent most of Herzog’s Rescue Dawn alone, thrashing his way through the jungle. But the trend seems to be growing. Last year Ryan Reynolds spent all of Buried trapped in a coffin, armed with a lighter and a cellphone, literally trying to act his way out of the box. And James Franco spent the better part of 127 Hours pinned by a boulder in a desert canyon, before amputating his arm with a penknife—a performance that landed him an Academy Award nomination, though he proved less intrepid in braving his ordeal as an Oscar host.
Wrecked is one of two solo survivor sagas opening this week. The other is Essential Killing, a drama from Polish New Wave veteran Jerzy Skolimowski. American actor Vincent Gallo stars as a prisoner who’s captured by the U.S. military in a nameless country that looks like Afghanistan. He is tortured, transported to a wintry destination in central Europe, then escapes when a convoy skids to avoid some wild pigs, which sends his truck rolling down a mountainside. As Gallo runs barefoot through the snow, chased by soldiers and dogs, his suffering is palpable.
“We were shooting in -35°C temperatures,” Skolimowski said last week in a phone interview from Poland. “It’s not only that the guy was running barefoot on the snow with shackles on his feet and handcuffs. Psychologically speaking, he plays a character who is chased like an animal. Vincent is a method actor, so he has to feel alienated and frustrated and hated by everybody. It was a very difficult part.” Gallo, of course, is not the first actor to risk frostbite for the sake of a chase scene. The star of Canada’s Inuit epic Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) didn’t just get barefoot; he ran across Arctic ice floes stark naked.
For an actor, the challenge of starring in a solo survivor drama goes beyond the physical. The performance amounts to a one-man show. In 127 Hours, at least Franco had a video camera to talk to, as did the real-life character he portrayed. But in Wrecked, Brody barely speaks, except for some fleeting exchanges with a female mirage (Caroline Dhavernas), a mystery dog, and a mountain lion. He can’t even walk; he crawls his way through the film. As for Gallo, his performance is wordless, aside from some grunts and screams.
What makes these movies compelling is that they’re raw portraits of figures wrestling with a landscape. Skolimowski says “natural laziness” led him to make Essential Killing: he wanted to shoot in Poland, in his own wilderness backyard. Intrigued by reports of the CIA flying in prisoners from the Middle East, he came up with the story after skidding on an icy road close to a U.S. military airstrip near his home. But he downplays the story’s political implications, calling it “a poetic fantasy about the force that allows a human being to fight for his life like a wild beast.” We have no clue if the men in Wrecked and Essential Killing are good guys or bad guys, but we can’t help rooting for them—and the actors who push their craft into the wild.