When in a mood this foul, I often find myself drifting towards films that convey an appropriate level of loneliness to match the brooding state within, and never seem to have any trouble locating a good cinematic compliment. Today’s list, which lands right in the heart of the holiday season, celebrates the oft-overlooked reality of this time of year: mainly, that a lot of people are alone when everybody else is celebrating the exact opposite. To honor those silent warriors, and to allow myself a bit more time to wallow in this depressed funk, this ranking will order the films that illustrated loneliness most effectively.
To make the cut, the film had to have dedicated a good chunk of the picture to an expression of loneliness either through blatant, active means (i.e., getting marooned) or via a psychological state that was deliberately crafted through quality filmmaking. The more palpable, tangible, and desperate this emotional conveyance was, the better, for if the loneliness jumped out of the screen, and wrapped its cold, needle-tipped fingers around the audience’s heart, then all the better. To get into serious consideration for a top-3 spot (or thereabouts), the film had to convey a level of desperate loneliness that spoke not just to that character’s plight, but the need for humans all around the world to form connections outside of their personal sphere at the peril of their own sanity. Some very close calls that nearly made the cut included I Am Legend, Rear Window, Up, Cold Mountain, Wall-E, The Postman, and Murder in the First. Still, even with these mentions, and a few more in the actual selections below, I know I’ve missed a few whoppers. Feel free to harass me about this in the comment section below. Until then…
A guilty-pleasure pick at #10 (as so many #10 selections are), Pump Up the Volume just barely edged out Rebel Without a Cause, for while both films said a lot about the confusing, Catch-22 nature of adolescence, Pump Up the Volume did it in a way more familiar to this author’s generation. Both films were about a lonely, new-to-the-area youth who wanted to fit in, yet couldn’t quite get over his own shy demeanor to “put himself out there.” In Pump Up the Volume Christian Slater played “Mark,” who was a bookish wallflower by day, and a sex-crazed pirate radio shock-jock by night. Unbeknownst to his classmates, Mark was the faceless “Hard Harry,” a D.J. whose renegade radio broadcasts gave a voice to the disaffected youths of a persecuted suburban Arizona community. Mark’s school was engaged in a few shady practices, some of which included the expulsion of racial minorities to drive up test scores, not to mention a little accounting fraud. From the outside everything appeared fine, however, for the grades of the students who did remain were up, and any trouble-making was swiftly addressed by summary expulsions. For Mark and the students trapped inside this fascist nightmare, however, it was a terrifying prison, one made all the more difficult for Mark, who couldn’t so much as make a new friend, let alone rally those around him to effect real or lasting change. This isolation drove Mark towards the microphone, though, which in turn drove the students listening to outright rebellion, something that might not have been possible if one shy kid from New York had actually been able to step out of his shell and make friends. This debilitating loneliness might have been painful for Mark at first, yet it was enough to get him a small underground following, and the #10 spot today.
One of the best films no one has seen, The Matador entertained on several different levels, not the least of which being the character juxtaposition of Pierce Brosnan’s “Julian Noble” versus the 007 super-spy role that made him a household name. In The Matador, Brosnan played a career hitman who, on his birthday, realized that twenty two years of professional killing left a man with desperately few connections. Though he was a high-end assassin, and appeared to be doing well in that profession, a drunk evening dialing numbers led Julian to the unpleasant conclusion that he had no friends, and those people he did know wanted nothing to do with him. This was a difficult pill for Julian to swallow, for he appeared to have never taken the time to develop normal, human relationships, something that probably made him a great killer, yet left little for him to draw on when trying to carve out an existence for himself. This inspired Julian to latch on to the nearest person in sight, no matter who they happened to be; in Julian’s case, this led him to a good-natured businessman in a lonely hotel bar, a guy named “Danny” (Greg Kinnear). As a film, The Matador was superb, for it took the suave, confident, always-composed man-of-mystery archetype audiences had gotten so used to when looking at Brosnan, and turned that expectation completely on its ear with his Julian character. The result was hilarious and touching all at once, for it painted a frighteningly realistic picture of what it might look like to live a life dedicated to death, only to wake up one day wanting nothing more than to live. It was Brosnan’s childish, almost juvenile expressions of loneliness made this thematic arc pop, and for that, he slipped in at #9.
Maybe the only Sofia Coppola film that this author finds palatable, Lost in Translation seemed to succeed because it abandoned all pretenses about form or style and invested itself completely in its characters. While not always a successful strategy when those characters aren’t written well, or given life by good acting, Ms. Coppola had both in Lost in Translation, and the audience benefited tremendously as a result. Bill Murray played “Bob,” an aging American film star who started the film en route to his hotel in Tokyo, looking out the window at a mildly scary, foreign universe. Scarlett Johannson’s “Charlotte” was no less lost in this Japanese metropolis, for she was visiting the country with her celebrity photographer husband, a man who seemed only moderately interested in connecting with his wife. Though roughly thirty years apart, Bob and Charlotte found in each other a kindred spirit who seemed to be going through the same mid-life crisis despite nearly three decades separating them. And this connection, this bonding over a shared sense of isolation amidst one of the densest urban centers on the planet, while it did bring the pair some solace and comfort, it only further illustrated how desperately lonely these two were, for it took a stranger in a bar on the other side of the world to finally bring them some peace. Watching the film, one gets the sense that this meeting was a miracle, that if Bob and Charlotte had not miraculously found each other, that they would have been lost forever. Even the way Ms. Coppola shot the film evoked a frozen sort of loneliness that seemed to jump out of the screen, for large, sweeping crane shots were abandoned for stationary set-ups and free-form takes that shrunk the Japanese landscape for the characters. For drawing out this loneliness even amongst the crowded throngs of Tokyo, Ms. Coppola and Lost in Translation more than deserved a mention here today.
Hollywood’s go-to prototype for action blockbusters in the years between 1988 and 1998, Die Hard kicked off a man-versus-the-world cinema formula that saw many imitators. Indeed, during industry pitch sessions, the phrase “Die Hard on a _________ ” was uttered many a time, and in some cases bought into with gusto. Take, for example, movies like Passenger 57, Speed, Under Siege, Toy Soldiers, The Rock, and Air Force One, which were essentially examples of the Die Hard formula on a plane, bus, boat, school, island prison, and Presidential aircraft, respectively. The basic formula was the same across the board, for they all saw a group of criminals infiltrate/overtake an established position for the purpose of taking hostages, whereby they then made demands of the authorities, and had to do battle with a renegade/overlooked good-guy working from within. None of them did it better than the original Die Hard, though, for the action was never crisper, the hero more valiant, or the baddies better played (God bless you, Alan Rickman). What made Die Hard so special was the uninterrupted loneliness of its hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), who had little more than a walkie-talkie to link him to the outside world once the shit hit the fan. Sure, he had Sgt. Al Powell to talk to when the times got really tough, but when it was game-time, when Hans and the boys were breathing down his neck, blowing the building all to hell, and chain whipping the piss out of him, ol’ John was on his own. Really, though, the man worked better this way, for if three subsequent sequels (soon to be four) have proved nothing else, it’s that this man needs no sidekicks to take care of business (they always whine and just get in the way). The first one got it right, however, for a man alone, with little more than a walkie-talkie, a berretta, and his twenty pound brass balls can do plenty of solo damage. Respect.
Although 28 Days Later developed into a movie about a small community, and one man’s attempt to reestablish a familial connection following the zombocalypse, it started off a very, very lonely film. Following a quick prologue where the origins of the rage infection were explained, 28 Days Later shifted into a nightmarish dreamscape where the main character, “Jim” (Cillian Murphy), wandered through the abandoned, not-quite-ruined streets of London. Unlike most post-apocalyptic scenes were a survivor meanders through the shattered ruins of a long-lost civilization, Jim passed through empty streets and deserted corners that looked like they had been abandoned just hours ago. This was especially unsettling for Jim, whose last memory was of a normal world with crowded streets, a world that had pretty much vanished in the time between he’d been hit by a car and then startled back to life one morning. As he tried to wrap his mind around this terrifying reality, of waking up to find he was the only person left alive, Jim was confronted by a once-bustling metropolis that failed to answer back with each increasingly desperate “hello?” shouted into the emptiness. Although Jim eventually came across a horde of zombies, and after that, a group of survivors, it was difficult to overcome the suffocating loneliness that seemed to permeate the picture after so auspicious an opening. Indeed, as the film progressed, its thematic foundation rooted itself firmly in this notion of family, and how important it was to live in a healthy community in a world where isolation led to almost-certain death. Speaking of which…
5.) 127 Hours –
Already featured in the 10rant’s Top 10 Thirstiest Scenes in Film list, along with the Top 10 Movie Bone-Breaking Moments ranking, 127 Hours definitely deserved a little ink today. The movie was a dramatic re-telling of the actual events that surrounded Aron Ralston’s misfortune when the young outdoor enthusiast went on a canyon hike back in 2003. Aron went exploring in the Canyonlands National Park without telling anybody where he’d be or when he planned on coming back, something that made for an entirely shitty situation once Aron slipped, fell down a crevasse, and found himself (literally) trapped between a rock and a hard place. Miles away from anybody who could help him, and with no practical hope for a rescue, Aron spent a majority of his one hundred and twenty-seven trapped hours trying like all to get himself free of the boulder that was pinning him in place. When these efforts failed, Aron had a couple of days alone with his thoughts, where the adventurous youth had to confront the consequences of the actions that led him to such a nasty predicament, but also of a life lived up to that moment. Like most people in his situation, Aron had to confront the deficiencies in his character, which all became abundantly clear once he had some serious time to consider how the man he’d become had led him to that brutal moment. This perspective often offers a lot of generous insights, yet they almost always come at a time when a person can no longer do anything about them. Luckily, Aron got a second chance, due in large part to the steely resolve that led to a little self-surgery , hence, his loneliness found some purpose, a theme that was at the heart of this next picture…
When a person is so emotionally bankrupt and spiritually empty that they have to invent an alternate personality so that they can be a co-dependent on somebody, then one has reached a whole new level of loneliness. This was the fate that befell the narrator of Fight Club (played by Edward Norton), who had gone so far down the wrong rabbit hole that he realized one day that he didn’t know where he was, and worse, that he had no clue how he was going to get back again. Stuck in a job he loathed and halfway through a life that meant nothing to him, “Jack” (the narrator) was looking for some kind of community, or a purpose, when his chronic insomnia set in. As if his body was providing a physical trigger to supplement the psychological trauma he was experiencing, Jack’s body refused its user any sleep, and plagued the poor man with this affliction until he broke out of his lonely shell. And while the support groups for medical ailments Jack didn’t have worked for a while, the full weight of his psychosis finally fell upon him, and produced one hell of a side-effect! This side-effect was “Tyler Durden” (Brad Pitt), a figment of Jack’s imagination that was invented to keep the ship from capsizing. Again, it doesn’t get a lot lonelier than 3 a.m. infomercial sessions and solo traveling that devolves to the point of a “single-serving” outlook on life, especially when full-fledged breaks in reality are thrown into the mix. For this, Fight Club got the nod.
Sitting at #3, the rank of Taxi Driver in today’s discussion says a lot more about the two films ahead of it than it does about Scorcese’s picture itself. Indeed, Marty and Bobby D. couldn’t have made a more cloistered, isolated movie if they’d tried, for the story of Travis Bickle (De Niro) was one of confusion, fear, and above all else, isolation. Travis was a simple man who the audience got to know during the opening minutes of Taxi Driver, where he explained that he’d just gotten out of the Marines, and was looking to thrown himself into the notoriously difficult life of a New York cabbie. As the film unfolded through Travis’ diary narration, one got the sense that this person was looking for some direction or purpose in life following his discharge from the service. Unable to make sense of the debauchery and chaos that surrounded him, however, Travis internalized his emotions, and buried his frustrated and confused despondency beneath a mountain of hatred and paranoia. To make matters worse, Travis developed a messianic complex where the unhinged cabbie saw himself as the only means of salvation for a young girl, and then, later, for the city as a whole.
This was entirely self-imposed, however, for Travis Bickle lived in New York City, and worked a job that saw him in near-constant contact with people all day long. Yet Travis lacked the basic social skills needed to maintain a normal, healthy relationship, and seemed to have trouble simply carrying on a conversation. His attempts to court a young political staffer ended in disaster, and the interactions Travis had with his co-workers, secret service agents, child prostitutes, pimps, and Presidential candidates didn’t go a hell of a lot better. Trapped inside the increasingly desperate and frantic prison of his own mind, Travis conceived of a bloody, almost operatic solution to his problems: he was gonna blast the badness away. Yes, reduced to soap operas and long, manic sessions of talking tough into a mirror, Travis finally snapped, armed himself to the teeth, and went after the pimps and Johns responsible for New York’s destruction (in his eyes, anyway). Though not as blatantly lonely as this next picture in the traditional sense, Travis’ isolation was as severe (and psychologically destructive) as what this next man experienced…
If Tom Hanks hadn’t snagged two Best Actor Oscars in the eight or so years leading up to this film’s release, he may very well have scored one for his portrayal of “Chuck Noland” in Cast Away, which arguably housed that actor’s strongest performance. Instead, the statue went to Russell Crowe for all the jaw-clenched brooding he did in Gladiator, a criminal miscarriage of justice if one views each film and its leads side-by-side. A largely silent performance, Hanks’ work in Cast Away showcased some truly amazing work, for throughout a majority of the picture, the actor had to convey a full range of emotions without anybody (or even the audience via a little narration) to bounce off of. Although his pet volleyball, Wilson, helped out in this regard about halfway through the picture, it still left Hanks with nothing to work with except an athletic prop and his own sense of the moment. For some actors, this would have been a death-blow, yet for a skilled professional who has made a name for himself deftly balancing humor, excitement, and genuine drama, it was the chance of a lifetime. Cast Away followed Chuck as he came to grips with the painful reality of his situation, for he’d been marooned in the South Pacific and presumed dead, something that left him with a deserted island, his thoughts, practically no chance of rescue, and little else.
Though he lived in denial for a time, and collected discarded FedEx packages in the obscene hope that he would quickly be rescued, after a few weeks, he realized nobody was coming, and that he was truly alone. Director Robert Zemeckis skillfully arranged his scenes to bring attention to Chuck’s isolation, for the wide shots that showed Chuck tucked away, in the corner of a frame, alone, amidst the expansive island scenery, said it all. After a few years, when the tedious nature of his isolation finally began to have an effect on his mind, the film came back to Chuck to give the audience a look at what such an extended period without human contact could do to a person. It was a terrifying image, for it showed Chuck as a changed man, one who no longer delighted in normal human endeavors, but instead, simply went about his existence, surviving. In this way, he wasn’t that unlike many of the people who get up every day to work jobs they hate, only to come home to apartments and lives that don’t really suit them. And although Chuck came to a similar realization, he did come to appreciate how important people and relationships are to this facet of life, and it was something that saw him towards a crossroads at the end of the picture, yet one he was far more prepared to handle than when his film-journey began. Good stuff.
Oh, holy shit, yeah. If, like your author, you initially overlooked this one when considering possible candidates for this ranking, allow this one to sink in a bit. For those unfamiliar with Johnny Got His Gun, or the novel upon which it was based, it told the story of a young American soldier, “Joe” (Timothy Bottoms), who awoke in an Army hospital to the horrific reality of his situation. The victim of an artillery barrage, Joe was a quadruple amputee who’d also lost his eyes, ears, tongue, and nose. Essentially a prisoner in his own body, Joe had only the memories of a much happier, earlier life when he wasn’t just a stump of humanity yearning for a quick death. Trapped in his hospital bed with only unsympathetic military doctors and indifferent Army brass looking on, Joe didn’t even have the luxury of being able to kill himself! Although he did figure out a way to communicate via head taps beating out a frantic Morse Code, his pleas fell on deaf ears, and the one sympathetic nurse who did finally take pity on Joe was stopped before she could complete her merciful work.
This was true, hopeless, unending loneliness at its most extreme, for Joe was never going to hear, see, smell, or taste anything again, which was all aside from the fact that the only human interaction he could sustain was that which could be carried out via a series of taps. Left with no desire except to die, or maybe get carted around the country as a freak show attraction to dissuade war hawks, Joe wasn’t able to see either of these modest ambitions through, and was left to suffer miserably in his bed. Originally written as an anti-war novel, the film adaptation lost none of its source material’s thematic punch, or poignancy. And in the realm of loneliness, it’s hard to beat out a listless chunk of humanity without any means to take care of itself, or even communicate effectively with the outside world. For those unfamiliar with this movie, go out and rent it, or, alternatively, you could just YouTube the Metallica video for “One,” which featured clips from the movie extensively; sure, the movie is better, but it didn’t have any old-school Metallica backing it up, so it’s something of a trade-off. Go figure.