Writers and directors have never been shy about sending their characters into car crashes, shootouts, hostile Indian territory or bad marriages. Danger is their business. But the kind of peril faced in several of this season's more prominent dramas could have been cooked up in a cauldron of woe stirred not only by John Ford, John Carpenter and John Woo, but also Jean-Paul Sartre: The existential terror of an inescapable hell on earth -- or space, or sea. And the fear of losing not only one's life, but one's sanity.
"He's in a battle for his mind," Chiwetel Ejiofor says of his character, Solomon Northup, the subjugated hero of "12 Years a Slave," echoing the predicament of other imperiled protagonists of 2013: Robert Redford's solitary sailor in "All Is Lost," Tom Hanks' hostage seafarer in "Captain Phillips," Sandra Bullock's adrift astronaut in "Gravity" and Matthew McConaughey's faux-pharmacist in "Dallas Buyers Club," who refuses to go gently into an inevitable good night.
"I think it's very important to be reminded that life is precious and our lifespan is continuous," says screenwriter John Ridley, who adapted Northup's 1853 memoir for the bigscreen. "One of the amazing abilities of cinema is to transport us to other places. And whether that's the middle of the ocean or the middle of outer space, places where we can take human nature and put it somewhere and ask the question: 'What would we do?' 'What would I do?'"
Getting the audience to ponder that question has more than a little to do with the script -- even in the case of "All Is Lost," which had a 31-page screenplay and virtually no lines for its lone cast member, Redford. It also has to do with the casting -- Hanks' signature Everyman, for instance, as the captive of ruthless Somali pirates; the usually hunky McConaughey, emaciated as a Texas hustler with HIV; Ejiofor, who is descended from the same tribe, the Igbo, that were kidnapped in such vast numbers during the slave trade. And Redford, who brings his own hand-tooled baggage to the deck of his derelict sailboat.
"I certainly was playing off the audience's expectations about him as a person and an actor," says writer-director Chandor. "A lot of the tension comes from the fact that it's an older guy; any small mistake can lead to catastrophic circumstances."
Although much of the film's effect hangs on Redford's performance, the detail of the script is precise: When water pours into the cabin of the boat, the first thing Redford's unnamed character grabs is not his sodden laptop or his GPS, but something that seems, to the uninitiated, less useful: his ship's log.
"A lot of people talk about how your sailing log keeps you from going crazy," Chandor says. "It keeps the days separated. So I had put it in there, as well as a moment when he rips a page out of the book -- it's something you wouldn't do it unless you were at the end of your rope."
The shipping container that punches a hole in the hull of Redford's 1979 Cal 39 sailboat might well have fallen off Captain Phillips' vessel during the melee on board, where Somali pirates led by a skinny pirate named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) are trying to ransom Hanks' captain, while showing very little interest in whether he lives or dies.
The film is as much about Hanks' courage under fire as it is about Muse's desperation. In fact, director Paul Greengrass likens it to classic gangster stories, wherein underdog renegades often have no choice than to live on the wrong side of the law, such as an impoverished young person "getting to be a big man" in a situation that, eventually, gets beyond his control.
"The goal is to give you a ringside view of it all," Greengrass says. "And, without turning it into a cheap thrill, maintain the tension. As they say, there's nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose."
What McConaughey had to lose was weight, which he -- and his very prominent co-star, Jared Leto -- did to a disturbing degree for "Dallas Buyers Club," in order to play the HIV-ravaged Ron Woodroof, and his transvestite aide de camp, Rayon. In the late '80s, they create a rogue distribution network for alternative AIDS drugs at time when an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence.
That both actors often look disturbingly ill is a large factor in the movie's overall effect, and its troubling subtext -- that its characters are making herculean efforts to accomplish something that's ultimately sisyphian: They're still going to die, and soon, and it won't go well.
With a screenplay by relative newcomers Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten, "DBC" involves a real-life story, intense preparation by its actors and an approach to the roles that -- according to director Jean-Marc Vallee -- dictated how he directed.
"I'm from the less-is-more school, and these guys were like two monsters going wild," he says. "So I backed away and covered myself. I was trying to find the right distance. And in the cutting I realized the more-is-more material was better."
No one's at a greater distance from her audience this season than Bullock in "Gravity" -- not physically, anyway. Metaphysically, she's immersed in a nightmare: Careening across a cold, desolate space, she faces a lonely death in a somewhat ridiculous position: She never wanted to be there in the first place.
"The way I work (with) actors (is) we like to prep like crazy, then start improvising, and allow things to go out of control," says "Gravity" director Alfonso Cuaron, who wrote the screenplay with his son Jonas. "What we had to do here is invent the out-of-control, and see how we would deal with it."
The immediacy of death and/or suffering is achieved, in some of the films, by being based in fact: Not in "Gravity" or "All Is Lost," but in "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club" and, of course "12 Years a Slave," which was adapted from Northup's 1853 memoir, written shortly after he was freed.
"I was struck by the depth of his soul and his unbreakable spirit and his lack of judgment, which is so surprising under the circumstances," says Ejiofor. "He recognizes the uselessness of hatred; anything that's not going to help him he cuts loose. And hatred isn't going to help him."
Adds "12 Years" screenwriter Ridley: "If you look at the concept of survival in film, whether it's this, or '127 Hours,' 'Life of Pi,' 'Argo,' 'Schindler's List' or 'The Killing Fields,' one of the amazing things about the human psyche is we compartmentalize. And whatever circumstance we're in -- and certainly it's easier for some of us -- we just move through it. We have to because, to really live by the adage of living every day like it's our last, (otherwise) we'd go crazy, you know? We'd sit in a corner in a ball and cry."
Steve Chagollan contributed to this report.
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