Steven Knight’s Locke represents an ‘anti-genre’ of films that uses just one figure to explore the human condition
Cinema is solitary; it forewarns us of the existential horror of oncoming solitude. Born alone, we will die alone; that is the curse of existence. It’s a (if not the) theme of cinema and its adherents. Films featuring one man (or woman) simply being and trying to escape the ticking of the clock provoke the audience unlike any other form.
Locke is the latest film from Steven Knight, coming soon after his directional debut: Redemption. It’s a completely different beast, singular and precise in it’s form. A car, a journey, a man (Tom Hardy) and a phone call that will change his life for ever.
When examining the history of single actor films, patterns begin to emerge. Adaptations of theatrical monologues, such as the series of Spalding Grey events (filmed by Jonathan Demme, Steven Soderbergh, Nick Broomfield and Thomas Schlamme), or Give ‘Em Hell Harry, Steve Binder’s film of James Whitmore’s tour de force as Harry S Truman, don’t quite fit into this subgenre. They ultimately surpass cinema and become the performance, so are perhaps too singular in their efforts to make us listen, forget, not see and connect.
This category also doesn’t include documentary films that feature one person, like Sobibór, 14 Octobre 1943, 16 Heures by Claude Lanzmann; his filmed interview with Yehuda Lerner telling us (Lanzmann) how he escaped from the eponymous extermination camp. Lanzmann is again staring through an avatar to the unholy truth.
Cinema as solitude, then, if not documentaries or monologues, is film viewed within the prism of a single person strolling through their own existence, often lowering them to deep-seated melancholy. This niche subgenre can be summed up by various films that work perfectly as companion pieces to Knight’s Locke.
The film that captures more than any other the notion of pure cinema as existential conundrum is Bernard Queysanne’s Un Homme Qui Dort. Adapted by Georges Perec from his own novel it follows a student in complete silence as he decides on indifference to a hostile world that rejected him. We hear via voice-over the incantations of an unknown woman who comments on the anti-hero’s actions. It’s impossible to watch and exist within this experience without thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea and his anti-hero Antoine Roquentin.
If Un Homme Qui Dort exists in the moment, then Sunil Dutt’s Yaadein is very much a film that looks back in sorrow and regret, as Sunil Dutt himself arrives home to find his wife and children not there, causing him to worry that they have left him. Belonging to a cinema of regret and reminiscences, this struggles with the empty nature of elegy and its misplaced sorrow for actions that have passed. Similarly Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, a film that wallows in ‘woe is me’ piety as we follow Richard Nixon (expertly portrayed by Philip Baker Hall), is another long dark night of the soul as he rants and screams in the self pitying way that only Nixon could.
All these films explore the nature of the individual by having them cut off from other individuals, finding drama in this paradox. Through the solitary nature of these films, the audience is invited to experience that isolation themselves.
The films mentioned here may have escaped the perspective of the mass media but other examples are to be found from all corners of the globe, for this is an anti-genre that thrills to the possibilities of cinema and all it can be.
Further watching: Buried (Rodrigo Cortes), Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway), La Cabina (Antonio Mercero), The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog), The Noah (Daniel Bourla), The Last Letter (Frederick Wiseman) and Seraphita’s Diary (Frederick Wiseman).