A two-hander film is one in which the story is carried on the backs of two main characters, with little-to-no supporting cast. Two-handers make for great low-budget films because a small cast often translates to a smaller budget – just think of the savings made in craft services alone before you even think about costume, transportation, accommodation, hair & make-up. But because these films rely heavily on two central performers, it’s crucial that the actors involved can carry the story, and they can do it together. To get you thinking about the different types of stories that can be told well in this way, here are nine, very different two-hander films that got it right.
The End of the Tour
Directed by James Ponsoldt
The End of the Tour follows real-life Rolling Stone staffer and author David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as he joins David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) on the last stop of his 1998 Infinite Jest book tour with the purpose of writing a profile on the enigmatic author. What makes the film such brilliant two-hander material is the ever-morphing nature of the two men’s relationship over the few days that they spend together; although Foster Wallace is the more successful of the two writers, it is Lipsky’s opinion of Foster Wallace that will dictate how he is portrayed in the article – but the power shifts back and forth as the men learn and share more about each other.
Directed by Sean Baker
It’s Christmas Eve and transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a 28-day prison sentence when her best friend and fellow trans sex worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor) inadvertently reveals that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp Chester has been cheating on her. Employing her forceful charm, Sin-Dee cajoles her long-suffering best friend into accompany her all over Hollywood in search for either Chester as long as she promises “no drama”… drama ensues. Partially based on the real-life experiences of leading lady and former sex worker Mya Taylor, Tangerine expertly shifts from laugh-out-loud hilarious to poignant and heart wrenching. The film’s success owes much to Rodriguez and Taylor’s easy chemistry as they carry the film through donut shops, brothels and car washes with unstoppable back-and-forth and the comic chops of seasoned professionals.
The Sunset Limited
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Penned by novelist Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) and based on his play of the same name, The Sunset Limited features just two characters, Black (Samuel L. Jackson) and White (Tommy Lee Jones), and one room. Black, a Christian and former convict has just prevented White, an agnostic university professor, from committing suicide by jumping in front of a train: the Sunset Limited. The ensuing film sees the two men – essentially playing personified ideologies – go toe-to-toe on their differing philosophies of life and the afterlife. Those familiar with McCarthy’s writing will be well aware of his talent for waxing philosophical, and The Sunset Limited is no exception – made all the better by the fact it’s Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson acting it.
Directed by Duncan Jones
Nearing the end of his solo three-year stint overseeing the mining of alternative energy source helium-3 on the far side of the Moon, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) begins suffering a series of hallucinations. After crashing his lunar rover following one of these incidents, Sam wakes up back at base with no memory of the incident, but overhears his only companion, an artificial intelligence named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacy), receiving instructions from his bosses back on earth not to let him leave the base until a rescue team arrives. It’s clear something’s amiss and that GERTY knows more that he (it?) is letting on for. Add in the remote lunar setting, and you have a throwback sci-fi with all the chill of Alien and the survival will of Gravity.
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
British acting legends Julie Walters and Michael Caine star as 26-year-old working-class Liverpudlian hairdresser Rita and jaded middle-aged university professor Frank, respectively, in Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of Willy Russell’s stage play of the same name. The pair meets as Frank is assigned to be Rita’s tutor when she begins taking English Literature classes through the Open University. Frank, whose passion for literature has long since waned, finds himself refreshed by Rita’s zeal and vigour for the subject, as well as how different she is from all the students he usually encounters. Meanwhile, Susan finds that Frank’s teaching and presence in her life inspires a newfound self-confidence and desire to be apart of his seemingly exciting bohemian, intellectual world. Over the course of the film, the disparate pair change and change each other in what initially seems like a mutually positive way, but as things progress, each realise that the other isn’t the beacon of hope and change that they originally appeared to be.
Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Made by legendary American documentary filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, Grey Gardens is often hailed as one of the best documentaries ever made. The film follows “Big Edie” and her daughter “Little Edie”, two reclusive, former socialites, and aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, living together in poverty amongst cats and racoons in Grey Gardens, a derelict and squalid mansion in East Hampton. The two endearingly eccentric women are perfectly at ease in front of the camera, often bickering with each other and talking to the filmmakers off camera. The relationship between them and the historic property where they reside is always the heart of the film as we get to know this the eminently watchable pair and their pasts in this touching and poignant portrait of ageing femininity and class away from society, but very much influenced by it.
The One I Love
Directed by Charlie McDowell
A film that really gets inside your head, The One I Love is carried entirely on the capable shoulders of Mumblecore pioneer Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss. Duplass and Moss play Ethan and Sophie, respectively, a couple who find themselves at a point in their marriage when the spark of their early days is no longer burning bright. Following a recommendation from their counsellor (a brief cameo from Ted Danson, whose house the film is shot in), the pair take a trip to a secluded estate with an attached guesthouse with the understanding that spending time at this property has helped save several of his other clients’ relationships. But as the extraordinary appears in the form of the ordinary, Ethan and Sophie both attempt to get their heads around who exactly is the one they love in this film that keeps you guessing until the very last frame.
My Dinner with Andre
Directed by Louis Malle
You know a film is a cult classic when there’s an episode of Community pastiching it. A trailblazer in the canon of postmodern cinema, My Dinner with Andre stars Andre Gregory and Shawn Wallace as Andre and Shawn, respectively (although not necessarily playing themselves). The two men, Andre, a well-known New York theatre director and Shawn, a playwright, meet for dinner in the historic Café des Artistes in Manhattan. Similar to The Sunset Limited, the film consists entirely of dialogue as the pair discusses a plethora of topics that could arguably all come under the umbrella of the question of what it means to be human – or “the meaning of life”. Whilst the idea of watching a 110-minute dinner conversation may sound self-indulgent and dull, the reality couldn’t be further from it. As scintillating and current as the most heated pre-election political debate, My Dinner with Andre is a film you’ll have an appetite for again and again.
Directed Urszula Antoniak
Winner of the Golden Leopard for Best Debut Film at Locarno International Film Festival, Nothing Personal is an intimate and sensitive portrait of Anne, a woman who leaves her home in Holland in favour of an isolated existence wandering the austere landscapes of Connemara, Ireland. Following an encounter with the reclusive Martin, in which he proposes that she stay and work for him promising not to pry into her life, she finds herself off the beaten track and in regular company. As Anne and Martin’s relationship develops, the pair begin shed the respective barriers they’ve built up around themselves in the sensitive portrait of loneliness, isolation and human relationships.