Cinema is all about the expansive power of storytelling, of opening up larger worlds and letting the audience explore them. But sometimes, the best thing a narrative can do is force us into cramped quarters, keeping an entire film locked within the boundaries of a single enclosed location. In honor of HBO’s new series Room 104, which takes place completely in a single hotel room, we’ve put together a list of some of the most fascinating movies that restrict the characters and the action—and often even the audience’s POV—to a single setting. Check out this inventory, and try not to let claustrophobia set in.
Rear Window (1954)
Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece Rear Window depends on the claustrophobic status of its main character, who is confined to a wheelchair after breaking his leg. Adventurous news photographer Jeff (James Stewart) is in agonizing boredom wheeling around his small New York apartment, causing him to become over-involved with the neighbors he spies out of the titular window. His few visitors change the tenor of the apartment, especially when Grace Kelly’s Lisa floats in, awash in filmy fashionable outfits and peignoirs that can fit into a pocketbook. Then Jeff becomes obsessive when he believes one of his neighbors has murdered his wife, putting himself in danger when the killer realizes he has a witness. That formerly cheery apartment then becomes nothing but a dark and menacing trap, as the killer invades Jeff’s home, and Jeff is powerless to stop him with anything but a flashbulb. The same familiar space that once seemed so cozy mutates into the place from which Jeff can not escape.
Locke has a big problem to overcome for a drama: Only one actor appears on screen, and he spends the entire film in his fancy-ass BMW. Tom Hardy, luckily, is handsome enough that seeing pretty much only his face (along with some scenery as he drives) isn’t a chore, and he carries the movie artfully. It’s not that he has no one to interact with—that would be ridiculous: He spends the entire running time on the phone, trying to mitigate work and personal-life problems that reveal themselves over the course of his drive. It sounds boring, but the setting and performances make it gripping.
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
In Luis Buñuel’s surrealist chamber drama, the chamber becomes a prison, a fantastical metaphor for the ways in which elitism traps and ostracizes one from the rest of the world. The Exterminating Angel realizes this in the form of a fabulous dinner party that never ends; the assembled socialites mysteriously find themselves unable to leave, and are forced to remain tightly cloistered around the dregs of their decaying banquet—tearing the home apart for resources, and turning on each other out of a barbaric bid for survival. It’s been compared to a sort of bourgeoisie Lord Of The Flies (in fact, its original title was The Castaways Of Providence Street), and while its parable was directly inspired by Buñuel’s distaste for the Spanish ruling class under Franco, like William Golding’s novel, its themes are more universal than that. We humans are all confined in this same, shared space together, and the gilded walls that surround us are just window dressing for the primitive caves we still inhabit.
When you want to go small with a movie’s setting, it’s hard to beat “roughly the length and width of Ryan Reynolds.” That’s exactly what Rodrigo Cortés’ 2010 exercise in claustrophobic sadism does, though, with Cortés’ camera never leaving the wooden box in which Reynolds—playing a U.S. truck driver buried alive by ransom-seeking insurgents in Iraq—finds himself trapped. Writer Chris Sparling seeks out every conceivable (and not-so conceivable—looking at you, inexplicable coffin snake) way to ratchet up the tension of the premise, but he probably didn’t need to try so hard. Paul Conroy’s situation is already pretty close to maximally horrifying, after all, and Reynolds sells it ably, assisted only by a lighter, a cellphone, and a staggeringly unhelpful series of callers on the other end of the line.
In Cube’s opening scene, a guy wakes up in a big cubical room, gradually makes his way through a door into an identical cubical room, and is promptly sliced up by a laser (into tiny cubes, naturally). So it goes in this Kafkaesque thought experiment, which has gone on to cult success and two sequels (the first of which bears the excellent name of Cube 2: Hypercube). Five strangers eventually meet up in another such cube-room, crawling between rooms that all resemble each other exactly, aside from the presence of occasional deadly booby traps. The hope as they traverse rooms that the next one might be someplace, provide some possible variation, only adds to the sense of claustrophobia as, room after room, they find themselves stuck in the same cube. Toward the film’s close, despite countless risky traversals, arguments, and moments of revelation, they find themselves right back where they started, at which point they truly know despair. Being stuck in a death-cube sucks.
Richard Linklater has spent much of his career playing with the concept of time, in casually radical experiments like Boyhood, Dazed And Confused, and the Before trilogy. But with his 2001 drama Tape, the Texas writer-director took the experimentation one step further and played with space, too. Like Before Sunset, the film unfolds in real time, watching two estranged friends (Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke) catch up in a dingy Michigan motel. As the evening progresses, talk turning to disturbing events of the past involving a third party (Uma Thurman) who eventually shows up, it becomes clear that the characters won’t be leaving the motel room—that, in fact, the whole movie will take place behind its four walls. The singularity of the setting is a carry-over from the source material: a play by Stephen Belber, who also wrote the screenplay. But in refusing to “open up” the action the way so many filmmakers do when moving a story from stage to screen (there are no pointless trips to the vending machine), Linklater preserves the confrontational intensity. His characters can no more escape this room than they can what they’ve done. Why would we be any luckier?
Who needs a dinner party when you can attend a murder mystery instead? One of the first films to be based on a board game (and still one of the best, especially when you add Battleship to the equation), Clue took the whodunit puzzles of the game and ladled them atop a classic slapstick farce. Six strangers are invited to a mansion in 1954 New England, only to discover they’ve been blackmailed by a mysterious stranger. Soon, each one has been given a weapon, a murder takes place, and the hunt is on to find the killer. Originally filmed with three separate endings so audiences would never know which one they would encounter, the home video release made one conclusion the definitive “answer,” putting an end to people’s trust of characters with colors for last names—something Quentin Tarantino made great use of nearly a decade later with Reservoir Dogs.
In the 2011 film version of Yasmina Reza’s play God Of Carnage, a pair of couples gather in a Brooklyn apartment to discuss a fight between their grade-school-age children. It doesn’t go well, as what turn out to be four fairly awful New Yorkers—played by Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet—reveal some of their own frustrations. Every time Waltz and Winslet get up to leave, the apartment almost seems to grow a little smaller and more intense.
Alfred Hitchcock, the master of cinematic point-of-view, took perverse delight in limiting his camera to a single location in movies like Rear Window, Rope, and, less restrictively, Dial M For Murder—not to mention his various unrealized projects, including Phone Booth, a project developed for Hitchcock in the 1960s that eventually became a Joel Schumacher-ized Colin Farrell vehicle in the early 2000s. The first of Hitchcock’s “locked room” movies, however, is actually set outdoors—or, rather, at sea. Based on a script treatment by John Steinbeck, this ingeniously minimalist wartime thriller takes “We’re all in the same boat” to its logical extreme, in a story about a group of American and British civilians and seamen who find themselves face to face with the captain of the German submarine that sunk their ship, and slowly fall prey to their own prejudices and to their Nazi guest’s manipulations. Though the allegory is blatant, it’s complicated by the director’s usual fondness for charismatic and sympathetic villains. And despite the extreme technical constraints, Hitchcock even manages to work in one of his trademark cameos—as the “Before” picture in a newspaper weight-loss ad.
This post is brought to you by HBO’s Room 104, a new series from creators and executive producers the Duplass brothers that takes place entirely in one room. Each episode tells the story of a different group of characters who check in for unknown reasons, and whose lives are then explored over the course of the installment. Though Mark and Jay Duplass wrote half the episodes, the show is a deeply collaborative effort. Some rules were set: Directors would only have three days to shoot each episode. They only had a half-hour of time to tell the story, and no character is allowed to leave the confines of the room over the course of the narrative. Did the experiment succeed? You can tune in July 28 on HBO and find out.