Tethered to a mast high above the deck of a yacht in the Indian Ocean, a solo sailor struggles to mend a broken antenna wire with a pair of needle-nose pliers. He’s already had to patch a massive hole in the hull left by a stray shipping container. Now, perched at the tip of the mast, he hears a rumble of thunder and turns to see a storm cloud looming on the horizon. He says nothing. In fact, throughout his solitary performance in All Is Lost, Robert Redford mutters only a few words. But we can see the calculations play across his eyes as he contemplates every move, weighing his odds of survival.
Something similar takes place in Gravity, the tale of a rookie astronaut marooned in space. Tethered to the Hubble telescope, she is cut loose and set adrift after a collision with debris from a demolished Russian satellite. As she spins through in vertiginous 3D, behind the astronaut’s visor Sandra Bullock’s panicked face is framed in a tight, unrelenting close-up, a fishbowl of fear in a black void.
In 12 Years a Slave, a free black man who’s kidnapped and sold into slavery hangs from a tree with a noose around his neck, stretching his tiptoes to the ground to avoid being strangled. The camera holds on a silent, sweating Chiwetel Ejiofor for what feels like an eternity, while the life of the plantation goes on around him, as if he’s invisible.
The box office may be ruled by comic book blockbusters, and their invincible avengers, but the awards season is shaping up to be a contest of solitary souls braving impossible odds. Many of the year’s leading Oscar contenders have made their mark as painfully mortal protagonists, powerless survivors forced to live by their wits on an existential brink. They aren’t trying to save the world, simply their own skin. And their work adds up to a bumper crop of powerhouse performances.
It’s still too early to handicap the Academy Awards—even though, the campaign, like Christmas, seems to start earlier every year. So to forestall premature Oscar fatigue, let this be the last time the O-word is used here. Suffice it to say that any actor whose name comes up is considered a contender in what has turned out to be an exceptionally crowded field.
Redford’s virtuosic, virtually silent, performance in All Is Lost is emblematic of a striking trend—actors stepping out of their wheelhouse and pushing their physical limits as characters who are confronted by their mortality. Redford is famous for verbal roles and liberal postures—from the repartee of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to the Watergate sleuthing of All the President’s Men. But as a sailor drenched in water for much of All Is Lost, he reminds us he’s an athlete at heart, a nature boy who began as a California surf bum. In this elemental tale of an old man and the sea, as he attends to myriad practical tasks with the sole purpose of staying afloat, his weathered features are animated by a native intelligence. This is an action hero we haven’t seen before, especially when you consider Redford is 77.
The sheer technical detail of the performance is what novelist Michael Ondaatje once described to me as “the poetry of the skill.” With no one to talk to, all those bits of physical business take centre stage, as the actor engages in a kind of manual dialogue with his immediate environment. It’s all that lies between him and an endless horizon, which is more than a metaphor for death.
In Gravity, Bullock, the ultimate lost voyager, ends up unimaginably alone, like David Bowie’s Major Tom “floating in a tin can high above the world.” Despite the initial comfort of her jaunty co-star, George Clooney—who bops in and out like an orphaned voice from her romcom past—Bullock navigates most of the movie as a breathtaking solo act. Gravity lacks gravitas; it’s just an exhilarating cliffhanger with an unprecedented view. But it’s hard to think of a Hollywood heroine who’s been accorded the luxury of such vast and forbidding solitude.
At one point, Bullock’s mayday radio call from a disused Russian spacecraft is intercepted by an uncomprehending Inuit on Greenland’s icy tundra. Now Warner Bros. has released Aningaaq, a seven-minute short showing the Inuit at the other end of the line, alone with his dying sled dogs, in a world almost as bleak as hers, though less exquisite. Bullock’s abject terror in Gravity is offset by the rhapsodic beauty of space: when the universe is your sole companion, it becomes a character in its own right.
Perhaps the ultimate instance of a lonely performance that speaks volumes—beyond the dialogue on the page—is Ejiofor’s work in 12 Years a Slave, which may be the movie of the year. As Solomon Northup, a free man who is abducted and enslaved in a kind of backward odyssey, he channels an experience of plantation slavery that American cinema has never squarely addressed until now. So much of what his character suffers has to be endured in silence, or masked by words of fearful diplomacy, as he tries to survive a world that is as strange to him as an alien planet. Again, the terror is punctuated by interludes of aching beauty, lush southern landscapes that would be at home in a Terrence Malick film, suggesting that nature is the only real witness to the horror.
Hollywood’s most exalted cliché is “the triumph of the human spirit.” But 12 Years a Slave is about the crushing of the human spirit. By the time Northup finally regains his freedom, it’s a barren redemption. He’s been been flattened by the indignities he’s had to inflict, as well as endure. That’s most palpable when he is forced to whip a young female slave, a scene that director Steve McQueen’s unflinching camera forces on the viewer with essential cruelty. Northup looks even more alone and bereft than when he was strung from a tree; then, at least, he was fighting to stay alive.
The year has also produced comedies about beautiful losers locked in states of desperate isolation. These are idiosyncratic characters created by some of America’s most idiosyncratic auteurs. In Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a demented coot (Bruce Dern) drags his son on a quixotic road trip to cash in a million-dollar marketing sweepstakes “prize.” Though his son (Will Forte) humours him, and various challengers cross their path, Dern’s gnarled performance—sucking everything into it like a black hole in the movie’s Midwest cosmos— is the only one that matters. No matter who’s around him, his ornery character seems oblivious. Significantly, Nebraska is filmed in black-and-white, which makes the small-town bars and living-room clumps of football-watching families seem even more desolate. And when the camera goes outside, the empty landscapes seem almost lunar.
For scenarios of dire comic pathos, however, it’s hard to beat the Coen brothers. Their Inside Llewyn Davis, which opens next month, follows the shambolic odyssey of a struggling folksinger in New York City’s Greenwich Village circa 1961. Portrayed by Oscar Isaac (Drive), whose performance is a revelation, the title character was loosely inspired by troubadour Dave Von Ronk, who influenced the young Bob Dylan but missed the wave that carried him to stardom. An authentic talent, Llewyn is both a sad-sack victim of bad timing and the brilliant architect of his own misfortune.
Although Isaac’s co-stars include Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, hilariously cast as a milquetoast folk duo, plus John Goodman as a jazz-loving gasbag, the movie utterly belongs to Isaac. With a soulful tenderness that thaws the Coens’ chronic cynicism, Isaac makes us believe his character could have been the next Dylan. The film shows him performing several songs from beginning to end in a vacuum of a time-stopping intimacy. True to the title, it actually takes us inside Llewyn Davis, a character lost in his own unsung talent, with no real friends, just one bitter ex-lover, and no audience—aside from the one that’s watching the movie.
None of these solo acts leave much room for romance. But next month comes Her, an unconventional love story from writer-director Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich). It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man who falls for his phone’s sentient operating system, a Siri-like siren voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It sounds like a pathetic act of desperation. But when has Phoenix not played a character so lost in his own mind that he’s in danger of losing it? And warm reviews from the New York Film Festival describe Her as one of the year’s more life-affirming fables. In the end, solitude may be the last word in intimacy, at least at the movies. As long as you can hear a voice in your head, even if it’s not yours, you’re never alone.