Back in the ’50s and ’60s, motion picture epics would proudly trumpet the fact that they featured “a cast of thousands.” That typically meant a movie had hordes of extras, but it still indicated a lot of people were on the screen. The ’70s, meanwhile, offered up pictures like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno that hyped their “all-star casts.”
There’s no doubt that such terminology holds a certain appeal. It promises that a movie will be “big.” That said, it’s not terribly difficult to make a big movie. Put a lot of famous actors up there, give them a dramatic plot, throw in some stunts or musical production numbers, and the work practically makes itself. (That doesn’t mean it’ll be good, of course, just that it will be easier to maintain the audience’s attention.) Making a movie with only a couple of actors, on the other hand, is a lot more difficult. The performances and the script have to be airtight. There just isn’t much else to rely on.
The Shallows is the latest movie to have an incredibly small cast. It’s pretty much Blake Lively and some sharks. We’ve collected a few other examples of times when this rather unusual approach was done well.
Here are 15 Movies With 5 or Fewer Characters.
15. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Released in 1966, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s play. It concerns an older married couple, played by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who act out their marital discord in front of a younger couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis). In addition to the fighting, a whole lot of drinking goes on, as well.
The small cast here is necessitated by the material itself. Albee’s play is an interior work, designed to give the audience a microscopic look at a marriage in disarray. That it works on screen without falling into the trap of feeling like a “filmed play” is due to the strength of the material and the intensity of the performances. Famed screenwriter Ernest Lehman did the adaption, which Mike Nichols directs with emotional precision. Real-life couple Taylor and Burton, meanwhile, act up a storm, taking the audience deep into the damaged psyches of the people they’re playing. You utterly forget how few characters are in this picture because what you’re watching is so engrossing.
14. Hard Candy
Before she won America’s heart as a pregnant teen in Juno, Ellen Page had a much different kind of role. In Hard Candy, she portrays Hayley, a young woman who abducts a man named Jeff (Patrick Wilson) whom she suspects of being a pedophile. Tied to a chair, he repeatedly proclaims his innocence, but she doesn’t believe him. Eventually, she reveals a plan to castrate him for the crimes she believes he committed.
Hard Candy is like a psychological tennis match. The two characters spar back and forth, with Hayley trying to get Jeff to cop to his sins, and him trying to find a way to talk her out of the heinous things she has in store for him. The movie cranks up the tension throughout, before dropping a wicked twist at the end. And really, it has no need for too many characters, because all the drama is centered around the mental combat taking place between Hayley and Jeff. Adding more people on the periphery would decrease the suspense, if anything.
13. 10 Cloverfield Lane
A young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in an underground bunker following a car accident. The bunker’s owner (John Goodman) tells her there’s been some kind of chemical attack above ground, so she can’t leave. She doesn’t trust him, but the other occupant (John Gallagher, Jr.) thinks it’s true — for a while. This is the premise of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a thriller designed to elicit chills from the inherently claustrophobic setting.
The clever twist in this movie is that Winstead’s character seems to be in checkmate. If she defies Goodman and is ultimately wrong, she dies. If she stays, and if her hunches about him are correct, she also dies. Director Dan Trachtenberg amplifies the sense of containment, making the viewer feel as though he or she is also stuck in that bunker. The cast of three actors serves to illustrate how alone Winstead is. There are only two people for her to count on, and one of them might be crazy.
12. Hell in the Pacific
Sometimes in life, you find yourself in a situation where you’re stuck with someone else. Maybe your professor assigns you to a study partner who doesn’t put forth much effort. Or maybe your boss makes you do a project with an annoying co-worker. Or, as in the case of 1968’s WWII drama Hell in the Pacific, you’re an American pilot stranded on a small island with a Japanese Navy Captain.
Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune play the enemies who suddenly find that they have to work together in order to survive. Hell in the Pacific is specifically designed to be metaphorical. It uses the two-person concept to examine tensions between nations in times of war, in addition to the misconceptions warring sides have about each other. The approach is powerful, ultimately suggesting that, when given a chance, basic human decency can overpower petty conflicts.
11. The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project, which kicked off the trend of “found footage” movies, told the story of three young filmmakers who enter the Maryland woods to investigate an old myth. To their horror, they discover that the malevolent witch long rumored to haunt those woods does, in fact, exist. And she’s not happy that they’ve come looking for her.
Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard play the filmmakers. Their performances are so authentic, as is the movie itself, that after its Sundance Film Festival debut, people were shocked to see the actors walking down Main Street in Park City. (Their eponymous characters are presumed to have never made it out of the forest.) Aside from being scary as hell, The Blair Witch Project is notable for using this trio of characters to explore group dynamics in the midst of a terrifying situation. They go from blaming each other for the catastrophes that arise to desperately banding together in an attempt to stay alive.
If you can get through the finale of Antichrist without putting your hands over your face and screaming, you deserve some sort of medal. Lars von Trier’s psychosexual drama is extremely hard to watch, which is the reason why it’s so polarizing. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe play a married couple who retreat to a cabin in the woods after the death of their toddler son, who fell out a window while they were having sex. Dafoe’s character, a psychotherapist, attempts to treat Gainsbourg. However, both of them are subject to disturbing visions.
Antichrist, with its shocking scenes of genital mutilation, is von Trier’s meditation on depression and guilt. There are many ways you can interpret what he’s trying to say (for example: Gainsbourg represents self-flagellation for one’s sins, whereas Dafoe represents repression of feelings), but perhaps the movie’s talking fox sums it up best when he says “chaos reigns.” Regardless, watching the two characters grapple, in very different ways, with grief is thought-provoking, provided you can stomach the deep, dark places where the story ultimately goes.
9. Before Sunrise
A young American guy (Ethan Hawke) traveling through Europe meets a French beauty (Julie Delpy) on a train. They have an instant attraction and, knowing that their encounter is destined to be brief, make the most of it by spending an entire night walking and talking through the streets of Vienna. That’s the “plot” of Richard Linklater’s 1995 drama Before Sunrise, a film so beloved by its fans that it spawned two sequels, 2004’s Before Sunset and 2013’s Before Midnight.
Have you ever started dating someone and had that magical evening where you truly connect and spend hours in deep conversation, getting to know the most intimate things about each other? Well, that’s what Before Sunrise is about. It’s literally an hour and forty-five minutes of Hawke and Delpy doing a walk-and-talk. If that sounds boring, it really isn’t. This is about as probing and specific a look at how people fall in love that you’ll ever see.
Before he directed the big-budget Godzilla reboot or this December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Gareth Edwards made Monsters, a low-budget sci-fi picture with a very human center. It’s the tale of a photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) tasked with transporting his wealthy publisher’s daughter (Whitney Able) across a “quarantined zone” full of massive alien creatures. The zone is in northern Mexico, so they have to get through it in order to reach America once again.
At one level, Monsters works as a metaphor for immigration issues. But at its deeper core, the film addresses how the two characters are running from personal demons that are every bit as menacing — if not more so — than the physical creatures threatening to stomp on or eat them. They have only each other to rely on as they traverse an incredibly dangerous landscape. Like all the best science-fiction stories, Monsters keeps its primary focus on the interactions between the people.
In Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck play two guys named Gerry who go for a hike on a wilderness trail, get lost, realize they have no food or water, and become severely dehydrated. Much of the movie is these two men aimlessly wandering around as they try to retrace their footsteps, somehow finding themselves in the desert. One of them dies, or at least seems to.
There isn’t a whole lot going on in Gerry unless you read between the lines. Over an hour-and-a-half spent watching Damon and Affleck walk is fairly tedious. In reality, though, the movie deals with facing death. Both characters realize how dire their situation is, and the longer it goes on, the more they are forced to confront the fact that they might not survive it. Gerry is about staring death in the face and trying not to blink. The drama comes in waiting to see if these guys break.
Fun fact: Gerry was partially inspired by the Tomb Raider video game series. Somehow.
Time travel movies often make your head spin as you try to keep the concept of different timelines straight. That’s part of their fun. No time travel movie has ever been quite as head-spinning as Nacho Vigalondo’s 2007 Timecrimes. You practically need a global satellite GPS system to follow the plot, but there’s no denying that this quality is purely intentional.
The film is about a guy named Hector (Karra Elejalde) who accidentally gets into a time machine while trying to outrun an assailant. He only goes back in time one hour. While that doesn’t sound like such a big deal, it’s enough to set off a near-catastrophic series of consequences. Before the movie is over, there are three Hectors running around, plus the crazy scientist who invented the time machine and a man draped in bloody bandages. Divulging what happens would be unfair (and, given the complexity of the script, nearly impossible), although it’s safe to say that Timecrimes ingeniously deals with a man at war with himself.
5. My Dinner With Andre
Two men — Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory — sit down for dinner in a restaurant. Over the course of two hours, they converse about travel, science, and overall life philosophies. (Actually, Andre does the bulk of the talking; Wallace is a patient and inquisitive listener.) Their temperaments are different, which helps keep the conversation flowing. A waiter checks in occasionally. Eventually, dinner is over. The end.
That’s My Dinner With Andre. The miracle of this 1981 Louis Malle film is that while it may sound excruciatingly dull, it’s anything but. The movie really is just two guys having dinner and talking. Everything takes place around the table. That said, the stuff they talk about and the way they talk about it is absolutely riveting. You feel like you’re right there with them, intently absorbing a fascinating conversation taking place between two really interesting guys. My Dinner With Andre is the rare sort of movie that manages to make you forget that you’re watching a movie.
In Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, two astronauts (played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) are left adrift in space after being hit by debris while on a space walk. Eventually, Clooney floats away into the blackness of the cosmos, leaving Bullock alone, millions of miles from home, trying to survive. She has to use all her knowledge and wits to figure out a way to safely get back to Earth.
Gravity requires a minimal cast because it’s not just a story of survival — it’s a story of being utterly alone. There is literally no one Bullock can rely on for help. It’s just her. Watching the film, it’s impossible for the viewer not to imagine how utterly terrifying that would be. Everything works because Bullock is so credible in the lead role, expertly showing how her character goes from abject panic, to fierce determination, to grateful relief when she finally, against all odds, touches down on land again.
If it’s tough to make a movie with only two or three characters, it’s practically a Herculean challenge to make a movie with only one character. That’s exactly what Buried does. Ryan Reynolds plays a U.S. truck driver in Iraq. After being attacked, he awakens to discover that he’s been buried alive inside a coffin. All he has with him are a cell phone and a lighter. The movie focuses on how he waits to be rescued by the people he frantically calls. Of course, since he’s underground, he has no real way of telling them where he is.
Viewers with claustrophobia will be driven absolutely nuts by Buried. By staying inside the coffin and focusing solely on Reynolds’ character, the film makes you feel like you are the one stuck in there. Director Rodrigo Cortes doesn’t give you the benefit of occasionally seeing the outside world, or catching a glimpse of what the people looking for the character are doing. He makes you stay trapped with his leading man. Toss in some horrifying threats (a snake, evidence that the coffin is collapsing, etc.), and you’ve got the recipe for a crazy-making thriller.
If you’re going to take a long car trip with someone, it had better be with a person you find interesting. Tom Hardy’s character in Locke is deeply flawed, but you won’t be bored by him. Hardy plays construction foreman Ivan Locke. For 80 minutes, you sit with him in his car as he drives from Birmingham to London, talking to various people on his Bluetooth. Thankfully (for us, if not for him) he has a lot to talk about. There are some dire complications to a job he’s working on, and he needs to confess to his wife that he’s on his way to the hospital, where his mistress is about to give birth to their love child.
Writer/director Steven Knight keeps the dialogue dramatic, while also capturing the lonely atmosphere of driving long distances at night, where the only brightness comes from the dashboard or the headlights of passing cars reflecting in the windshield. Being the only person in the film allows Hardy to give a true tour de force performance. Because there’s no one else to look at, we’re forced to observe him with great scrutiny as Ivan struggles to hold his life together.
1. All Is Lost
If ever there was an actor accomplished enough to be alone on screen for two hours, it’s Robert Redford. The veteran performer does some of the best work of his career in All Is Lost, playing a sailor stuck on a catamaran somewhere in the middle of the ocean. After accidentally colliding with a shipping container, he finds his boat damaged and taking on water. His communications equipment is broken, as well. There’s also a violent storm approaching.
The cool thing about All Is Lost is that it’s more than just a nail-biting survival tale (although it’s a darn fine example of that, too). When you get right down to it, this is a movie about faith. As the title suggests, there is little reason for Redford’s character to think he can survive, yet he continues to look for solutions to the insurmountable problems that have befallen him. He does this partially because he wants to live, and partially because he believes deep down that a miracle might occur. He simply refuses to let go. The haunting final shot can be taken as either an affirmation of faith or a complete dismissal of it, depending on your point of view. Either way, Redford ensures that this one-character movie keeps you riveted from beginning to end.
Are there other movies with fewer than five characters that you love? Tell us all about them in the comments.