The 'Boy in the Box' May Be the Most Consistently Great Film Genre of the Last 15 Years
For those of us who find themselves constantly sighing about the latest Spiderman reboot, there’s a little-known and little-seen genre of films out there that tend to really push the envelope of storytelling in a movie world that increasingly features color-by-numbers Michael Bay dogshit. I don’t know if it has a name, honestly, but I’ve taken to calling it the ‘Boy in a Box’ genre. So what is it?
Basically, it’s a film where we trap our lead character in an environment, sometimes through technology, sometimes at the eye of a storm or a self-imposed isolation, and we watch them twist.
Let’s start with Tom Hardy and Robert Redford who haven’t received anywhere near the attention they deserve for their respective forays into one-man cinema. Hardy’s is Locke, a film where we watch a dude in a BMW for an hour and twenty five minutes. Here’s a link to Vivian’s spot-on review. Part of it was that we were watching an amazing young actor really coming into his own. Part of it was watching to see how the story would unfold. And part of it was the masterful way that director Steven Knight (in only his second feature) and editor Justine Wright kept the visual experience as stimulating as possible considering the limitations they faced. This was an absolute insert-tacular.
Insert of the dash
Single of Tom Hardy rubbing his eyes
POV shot of the traffic on the roadway
Shot from the back seat over left shoulder
Insert of Hardy’s grip on the wheel
Shot of Hardy from the outer rear view mirror
Insert of a directional as he changes lanes
Shot of the car changing lanes
Wide shot of the roadway
Insert of the dash - call incoming -
Single of Hardy looking at the dash
C/U of his finger pressing accept
…and so on and so on for an hour and twenty five minutes. I know that gives some people tics. It made others feel claustrophobic. I was just happy to be along for the ride. With the exception of about thirty seconds in the beginning as Hardy’s character, ‘Ivan Locke’, enters the BMW, the entire film takes place in the car. Thirty six phone calls. That’s what this film is. A one-man play on screen where every other credited actor is a voice over a phone.
In this day and age, that’s bold.
Redford’s is All is Lost, where we meet his character, and are thrown into the calamity of his solo naval voyage immediately. We never see another living soul. Nor does he talk to anyone. In fact, the credits look like this:
The thing about the other films in this tiny genre is that somewhere along the line, there are usually other people in it. Other actors that inform the overall world. Usually we open in a “normal” world and then launch our characters into isolation. Like in these films:
Cast Away - 2000
And to a lesser extent, also the movie Moon, (which doubled its meager budget, but could have done much, much better with a better 1. Title and 2. Cover Art). I couldn’t agree with Seth’s review more.
Moon - 2009
There’s also a boy in a windowed box. This one was a bit of a shoulder shrug, but I’ve seen worse.
Phone Booth - 2002
I suppose there’s a case that can be made to include films like Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow, and possibly Groundhog Day into this genre because they’re deeply personal 1-person stories inside a contained universe. Come to think of it, there may be a case for Wall-E as well.
But even so, they don’t do what some of these others do, which is to ask you to watch one person for most of the film.
That’s a tough thing to do, frankly. Take for example, some of the early film work in this genre by none other than Andy Warhol. In 1963 he debuted an art film called Sleep, where you watched a performance artist getting a good night’s rest. Five hours and twenty minutes of it. He followed that up with Kiss and Blow Job which was much shorter, but equally tough to watch.
I’m sure we could fill the Battleship Potemkin with art films of people just holding a camera on someone for far too long, but a commercial film with one person is another thing entirely. In 1966 we saw the magnificent Ingrid Bergman tackle a film which is probably the most similar to Locke in that it’s just her on the phone, and you don’t hear the other person. Though there is a dog. A dog goes a long way.
The Human Voice - 1966
I haven’t seen it but TK’s review of Buried seems like its in the same vein, and may trump either of the films I’m pimping because all the action takes place in a 3x7 box. How ya doin! Literately, a boy in a box.
Buried - 2010
It’s a borderline arrogant choice in this day and age: to think you can hold an audience’s attention with just one person. But these films show that it’s not only possible, but weirdly human and accessible. It’s like the difference between socializing en masse at a cocktail party or hiding in the corner whispering intimately to one other person.
It’s Robert Redford, reprising his Jeremiah Johnson roots, where the wilderness this time is on the water and the Crow nation is the endless ocean around him. If you made it through this film, chances are you really enjoyed it. And talk about bold, there’s barely any dialogue in the whole thing. There’s about ten lines of voiceover in the beginning and that’s it. In that way it’s even more bold than Locke or Buried. You can read a great review of it here.
All is Lost - 2013
It takes a truly special actor to command attention for that long. Robert Redford is someone I’ll always enjoy watching, and his performance was even and understated and quietly impressive. Some people view him as more of a movie star than a complete actor, but there was more weight to some of his double-take glances than some young actors have in their career.
Tom Hardy is not one of those young actors without gravitas. He’s a presence on the screen who forces you to take notice. He’s been so damn good in so many varying roles that its reminiscent of when a younger Philip Seymour Hoffman really started to put together a body of work and people were like “this guy kills it every time.”
Tom Hardy. In a car. For an hour and twenty five minutes. Robert Redford on a sinking boat. Apparently Ryan Reynolds in a coffin. Sam Rockwell on the moon. Stories this contained are as much about the director as the actor because there are no easy tricks. You can’t headfake to a B character or have an action sequence. It’s just one dude. How capably can you pace, unspool and resolve that story? That’s the question, and in the cases of these directors, the answer is heartening. Steven Knight. J.C. Chandor. Rodrigo Cortes. Duncan Jones. They opened themselves up in front of us and proved that, at the very least, they could tell a compelling story without tricks. It’s like we have a proof of concept, now we just have to allow ourselves to become true fans of the genre, and get some more women into it. Which actresses could pull it off?
At the end of the day, when you look through the past fifteen years or so of these very ambitious films, you’re hard pressed to find a single truly ‘bad’ one. I’m not sure you could look at any other genre and say the same.
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