The best movies about isolation

Quarantine and lonely characters: the perfect combination

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Leah Gelick/Talon

A cartoon depiction of Chuck and his volleyball, Wilson, from “Cast Away.”

Isolation is something we’ve all become familiar with lately, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The word isolation is defined as a state of being far away from urban society and civilization, as well as having “minimal contact or little in common with others,” according to Oxford Languages. As seen from the multiple definitions, isolation exists on numerous levels. 

Physical isolation requires you to be separated from the rest of society location-wise, whether by one’s own volition or not: jails, remote islands, asylums, boarding schools and even a home can signify physical isolation. This physical isolation is more often than not accompanied by two other types of isolation: emotional and mental, the state of feeling separate from the rest of society emotionally or in outlook. Loneliness, anger, mental illness, outsider complexes, insecurities and feeling disjointed from society in some cultural or emotional sense all breed and are results of isolation. 

The domain of film has always been able to capture isolation in a particularly poignant way. Many of the following movies do not include the current level of physical isolation we now face. Characters can see their friends or go into a store. Even with these freedoms, however, they still have a feeling of complete internal separation. On the other hand, some of the following films are set around premises which are even more isolating than a quarantine, places even worse than where we have been involuntarily placed, places of people’s nightmares.

 

  • The Virgin Suicides: The 1999 film was Sofia Coppola’s first full-length movie, but her ability to portray the isolation of young people was not diminished by her inexperience. The film is based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides and tells the story of the five teenage Lisbon sisters, viewed through the perspective of the neighborhood boys, as they grow up in the 1970s. Without giving anything away, the five girls are each slowly dragged into isolation that is so all-consuming, it can not be categorized, containing both the mental, emotional and physical. Lux, the most prominent and rebellious sister, in particular, tries to push against this isolation. The movie is especially timely as the girls are, for a good portion of the film, trapped in their house with their parents, something every teenager can relate to right now. The Virgin Suicides is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video Premium, CBS All Access and Google Play.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: With an all-star cast of Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey, Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo, Sunshine is a poignant reflection on the heartbreak of loneliness in an increasingly isolated, technology-fueled America, along with the true nature of memory. The film is viewed half in flashback and half in the present, giving a unique view on the mind as it tries to grapple with what lives inside of it and the outside world. The immediate present, in both 2020 and the film, is restricted. The characters must increasingly rely on their memories, as a result, in order to feel like they are living. The film poses the question: if new experiences are limited, are our memories the true substance of our lives? Is moving on from the images and sounds stored in our mind from a time which is forever gone an act of setting ourselves free or an act of wiping out the true soul of our being? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is available to stream on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime Video.
  • Rebel Without A Cause: The 1955 film does not have isolation in the traditional, physical sense. The characters are free to see each other, go to school and practically do anything they want. The interesting part of Rebel Without A Cause, in terms of isolation, is that the characters don’t need any physical isolation to feel alone. They are all paralyzed, polarized from their parents and society. The world seems nauseating to them, and, throughout the film, they search for a way out of their isolation with each other and the society they inhabit. In one scene, the characters hear a presentation on how the sun will blow up in a few billion years and immediately afterward, in a fit of nihilistic depression, self-destruct. This will ring true if you’ve recently had one of your teachers start talking about the apocalypse and then proceeded to go watch twenty hours of TV. Rebel Without A Cause is available to stream on HBO Max, Google Play and Amazon Prime Video.
  • Cast Away: This iconic survival movie starring Tom Hanks may be the most obvious example of isolation on this list. After crashing over the Pacific, Chuck (Hanks) is washed ashore onto a remote island. The film details Chuck’s life on the island as he struggles to grapple with survival and, as the years go on, the horrors of isolation. With a volleyball named Wilson as Chuck’s only friend, Cast Away is both a study in acting and a unique take on the albeit mainstream stranded-on-an-island movie. Cast Away is available to stream on Hulu Premium, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video Premium.
  • The Beguiled: Sofia Coppola loves to write about young people in isolation, so it’s no surprise that another one of her films fits this list. The Beguiled tells the story of an all-girls boarding school in the South. Set in the polarizing world of the Civil War, the film is an examination of isolation in multiple regards: gender, sexuality, war and location. When a hurt Union soldier stumbles onto the grounds, both the teen girls attending the school and the female teachers must grapple with their own repression and sense of embitterment. The old-world house where the boarding school is set quickly becomes a microcosm for the larger world of the Civil War. A hotbed of tensions broil in all the characters as the isolation of both location, gender and wartime allegiance slowly eats away at them. The Beguiled is available to stream on HBO Max, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video Premium.
  • Cleo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7): A French New Wave 1960s film, Cleo is the story of a singer as she lives her life the day before she is to receive a diagnosis of whether she has cancer. Monotonous in the traditional plot-driven sense, the film is an existential portrait of the true meaning of a life when that life may be about to end. Death and disease are the overarching figures throughout the film, even when Cleo is simply buying a hat, walking around or singing a song, giving it an eerily apropos feeling. In the end, the film is a tense and beautiful portrait on the act and meaning of living when death may be only a step behind you. Cleo From 5 to 7 is available to stream on HBO Max.