There’s something claustrophobic about a film set entirely in a single location, an unsettling feeling of being cornered in a confined environment, cut off from the rest of the world. Stories such as these require nuanced characters and thoughtful attention to narrative detail, many of which employ a theatrical feel, while others were literally sprung from a playwright’s pen. Their action sequences are merely verbal, characters revealing shocking truths and saying the unthinkable, while the setting forces them together until an often brutal conclusion. When people are trapped like rats, it’s no surprise they sometimes eat each other.
A new entry in this sub-genre, Green Room, a violent thriller from Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier expands this weekend. In the film, after a punk band witnesses a vicious murder, they find themselves trapped in the club’s green room, forced to fight their way out to freedom. On this occasion, we took a look back at some of the greatest examples of movies set entirely in one location, and even in some cases, one room. We hope you enjoy, and feel free to recommend your own favorites in the comments.
12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
In a court room, a young man stands accused of murdering his father with a switchblade. We see the defendant — we see his eyes, frightened and alone, painfully aware of his close proximity to the electric chair. This is the only time we will see the boy, as he watches the jury exit for deliberation, twelve anonymous men who will decide his fate. The shot dissolves to the men entering the jury room, where the remainder of the film’s drama plays out. At first vote, the jurors are in favor of convicting the boy, eleven to one. The one (Henry Fonda) genuinely doubts the boy’s guilt. What ensues is undeniably one of the finest dramas ever filmed, no surprise in hindsight from director Sidney Lumet, who made his feature debut with this gripping gem. Decked with a cast of sublime character actors, including Jack Warden, Lee J. Cobb and Martin Balsam, 12 Angry Men is an ageless and endlessly engrossing masterwork.
Dogville (Lars Von Trier)
Miraculously, one of the most important films ever made about life in the United States was created by a man who’s never set foot on American soil. A film often misinterpreted as a condemnation rather than a warning, Lars Von Trier‘s Dogville is best known for its unusual employment of chalk outlines on the floor of a massive sound stage in place of sets. Evoking the feel of a stage production, these surface elements retreat to the background and we focus simply on the citizens of this one-dog town. Unquestionably, Von Trier is one of cinema’s most shameless provocateurs, using every tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal to stroke his audience’s fur against the grain. A depression-era tale set amidst the Rocky Mountains, we follow Grace (Nicole Kidman) a mysterious woman on the run from gangsters who finds refuge in Dogville. The townspeople reluctantly take her in, but slowly turn on her, eventually forcing Grace to wear a bell around her neck to prevent her escape. “In spite of everything, her suffering had created something of value,” insists the narrator,coldly describing this poor woman’s plight. As the credits roll David Bowie‘s “The Young Americans” plays on the soundtrack, a reminder that if Bowie can write his song, Von Trier is certainly entitled to his film.
The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel)
A group of wealthy, upper-class friends gather for a lavish dinner party, just as the waitstaff escape out the back door, plagued by a feeling of impending doom. There’s something terribly wrong about this dinner party, as any good Luis Buñuel fan would expect. As the guests gossip and snipe at each other, smiles never leaving their faces, the smell of fascism hangs in the air. When the party ends, the guests do not leave, feeling strangely compelled to remain inside this immaculate chateau, which will be slowly reduced to a foul and chaotic mess over the next few days. As civilization crumbles inside the room, men carefully remove their dinner jackets to sleep, attempting to hold onto some form of bourgeoisie normalcy. No different outside, a crowd of onlookers gather, bizarrely unable to enter the chateau’s courtyard for the same unknown reason. Sometimes The Exterminating Angel is deliriously funny, while at other times, Buñuel captures a dreadfully haunting tone, crafting images of immense strangeness and bewildering peculiarity. In his book, “My Last Sigh,” Buñuel recalled how at the time of its release, many critics wrongly interpreted a vast majority of the film’s meaning and imagery: “Everything was arbitrary. I only tried to evoke some sort of disturbing image.”
Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais)
This hypnotic and impenetrable masterwork is not merely a film set in one location — it’s a film about its location and setting. Allow me to amend that statement: Last Year At Marienbad, a film about a man who meets a woman at a lavish spa and insists they’ve met before, could arguably be about a vast number of things, with which its director Alain Resnais would likely disagree. As Roger Ebert said in his review: “Incredible to think that students actually did stand in the rain to be baffled by it, and then to argue for hours about its meaning — even though the director claimed it had none.” It’s a film which unquestionably stalks the paths of memory, a tangible sense of yearning and loss in every whispered plea for affection. The woman (Delphine Seyrig) denies that she met the man (Giorgio Albertazzi) and indeed, we see differing versions of events to such a point that we cannot be sure of anything that happened. All the while, Francis Seyrig‘s Gothic score, preformed entirely on organ, drones on the soundtrack, trapping us spellbound in an unsettling embrace. Elegantly constructed and profoundly eerie, Last Year at Marienbad is a rare and singular jewel of ’60s French cinema.
My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle)
The fascinating and evocative My Dinner with Andre exists in a corner of cinema that movie fans come to slowly but eventually, overcome with curiosity. Actor/ playwright Wallace Shawn and theater director Andre Gregory are old friends who meet for dinner at a fancy New York restaurant, not having seen one another in several years. Famously, the film consists of these two men discussing their lives and ambitions over a meal of quail and rice. As humble working artists, Shawn is surprised by the lavishness of the setting, financially unaccustomed to such extravagances. As dinner ensues, the two men talk about nearly everything in life, occasionally interrupted by a glowering waiter between courses. The vast majority of the conversation is dedicated to Gregory’s amazing experiences in the five years since he vanished from the NYC theater scene, which include being temporarily buried alive. The film contains one of the best closing lines of dialogue in cinema, sending the viewer out of the theater awe-struck in a not dissimilar mindset as Shawn’s introspective dinner-goer, lost in swirling thought.
Panic Room (David Fincher)
While on the surface, Panic Room may feel like an unofficial remake of Wait Until Dark as its female protagonist is set upon by three dangerous criminals inside her own house, it’s not necessarily a film concerned with plot and narrative. Instead, Panic Room is an exercise in style and suspense by a master filmmaker. It’s director David Fincher‘s skillful hand that sets him apart from Wait Until Dark‘s Terence Young — his visual lushness and attention to painstaking detail. Even though its protagonists are trapped, the camera is totally free. Fincher’s eye can literally go anywhere, moving with fateful precision towards a gruesome conclusion. Indeed, the filmmaker’s mastery of visual style elevates what could have been a forgettable B-thriller to the heights of pulse-pounding engagement. It’s perhaps the purest example of good old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts filmmaking of Fincher’s career, whose stunning craftsmanship can be felt in every shot.
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald)
Director Bruce McDonald‘s masterpiece of horror, Pontypool, opens in a chillingly evocative sequence at a stop sign in the snow, which perfectly lays the groundwork for the claustrophobic terrors to come. Trapped in an Ontario radio station during a pounding blizzard, three employees try to keep their channel on the air as strange reports of mass violence and a possible virus outbreak are called into the news desk. Is this happening for real? Our heroes seal themselves inside the building, and yet the toxic outside world still manages to seep in through phone lines, infecting all those who hear it. As this smart and wonderfully original premise plays out, escalating gradually, body count growing, it evokes the feel of a radio drama, and not merely for obvious surface reasons. As chaos and violence envelopes the town of Pontypool, McDonald’s camera never leaves the building, allowing us to only hear about these surreal horrors secondhand. McDonald beautifully employs sound as a method of building intense mood and atmosphere, meanwhile still managing to prove himself on the gore front with Pontypool‘s brief but disturbingly visceral moments of splatter.
Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)
Easily one of Hitchcock’s most beloved and influential works, Rear Window is the ultimate peeping Tom movie. (Don’t worry, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. We still love you.) L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is a photographer with a broken leg, stuck recovering in his apartment which overlooks a lively courtyard outside. From this vantage point, Jeffries not only keeps abreast of the private lives of his neighbors, he also spots a possible murder suspect leaving in the middle of the night with a large suitcase. What is inside that suitcase, Jeffries wonders, or perhaps who is inside? At first, the ensuing investigation conducted by Jeffries and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly at her most perfectly lovable) is merely a cheap thrill for the pair, who cannot be sure whether or not a murder has even taken place. Hitchcock’s camera forces the audience into voyeuristic collusion with Jeffries, as we too are forced to sit forward in our seats, looking closer for the next elusive clue. But soon, this drama becomes all too real to Jeffries, as the characters from this murder story cross the line from morbid fascination into genuine threat. Solving a murder is all fun and games until the murderer comes looking for you.
Secret Honor (Robert Altman)
Philip Baker Hall‘s Richard Nixon, a performance for the ages, is a wailing sea of tortured facial ticks and half-finished sentences: a broken man alone raging and ranting at the rafters. Secret Honor is a one-president show, as Nixon fumbles with his trusty tape recorder, cursing, getting drunker and drunker, as he attempts to record the truth about his life. At other times, he screams horrid obscenities, blaming everyone for his downfall but himself, sections of the tape which he carefully marks for redaction. Hall’s performance, waving a bottle of whiskey and a loaded revolver, paints Nixon in an equally despicable and tragic light. He’s utterly loathsome and boorish at every turn, but when his mind drifts to his poor wife, the human being inside this blustery shell appears, heartfelt and imperfect. As always with director Robert Altman, anything dark is rendered dryly funny through his ever shifting gaze, following Nixon around the room as he defends his life against an unseen judge and jury. Hall is unforgettable, his performance reaching an enthralling peak during the quiet beats after the rages, moments of heartbreaking clarity when Richard Nixon realizes that he’s merely a man alone in a room.
Tape (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater‘s under-seen adaptation of Stephen Belber‘s play, Tape, is a slow-burn chamber drama in which three former high school friends meet in a hotel room in Michigan, drawn back together by the mischievous Vince (Ethan Hawke). Vince and Jon (Robert Sean Leonard) were best friends who’s romantic paths both crossed with Amy (Uma Thurman) at separate times. After a joint and a few beers, its revealed that an audio tape recording has been made of their conversation by Vince, which included Jon confessing to raping Amy years earlier. As Jon fights with his old friend for the tape, we realize Amy is on her way to the hotel, secretly invited by Vince, who has pulled an untold number of strings to set the stage for his cringe-worthy main event. However, plans quickly change. What began as an awkward attempt at revenge mutates and turns on its own architect, ripping open old wounds and blasting fresh new ones. In the end, these two men will learn that there are some things for which apologies are barbarically insufficient.
Wait Until Dark (Terence Young)
A recently blinded woman finds herself an object of manipulation by three criminals seeking a coveted child’s doll which they believe to be in her possession. Heroin has been stashed inside the doll, but don’t worry about that MacGuffin. It’s a mere excuse for these villains to menace, trick and terrorize this seemingly defenseless woman within the walls of her home sanctuary. Jokingly referring to herself as “the world’s champion blind woman,” Audrey Hepburn‘s Susy is a woman hellbent to adapt to life without sight. We feel painful empathy for her as she tries so desperately to remain independent under the circumstances, a heroically admirable figure even when she fails. The film is book-ended by a pair of terrific suspense sequences, in which the players of this game of cat and mouse switch roles of hunter and prey, twice over. Despite an air of camp which the passage of time has imbued the film, Wait Until Dark is among the most influential thrillers ever made. The film was clearly a major guiding force for another entry on this list, David Fincher’s Panic Room. Although oddly enough, the 1967 film is far more modern in terms of the female empowerment of its protagonist. Unlike Jodie Foster’s sledge-hammer wielding divorcee, Hepburn’s Susy saves herself from this dire situation without the knight-like valor of a male savior.
Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara)
A school teacher collecting insects in the desert stumbles upon a house at the bottom of a large pit. It isn’t long before he’s convinced to climb down into that pit for the night, after missing the last bus back to the city. A woman lives alone in this primitive house, curiously shoveling sand at night while he tries to sleep. The next morning, he finds the ladder with which he entered the pit has been removed. He’s trapped, forced to join her in the toilsome duty of shoveling away sand to prevent the house from being buried. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara shoots much of the film in mesmerizing close-ups, at times highlighting the thin layer of sand collected on glistening skin, and others focusing on the bulbous eyes of insects, fish or even a passing raven. Together, water and sand are the life blood of Woman in the Dunes, these two opposing elements irrevocably linked in this logic-defying landscape. The man’s Sisyphean sentence seems at first to be the makings of a uniquely original thriller, in which our hapless hero attempts to escape from his surreal imprisonment. Instead, the narrative moves in shocking directions, as the man in the dunes slowly comes to accept his tragic fate at the bottom of this hole.
Green Room expands this weekend.
What are your favorite one-location films?