The one-location movie is a producer’s best friend and a director’s worst enemy. On the budgetary side of business, it’s a dream come true: a single set, a small stable of characters, no cordoning off a public area for shooting. But there are also manifold creative challenges — there’s nothing to rely on but good ol’ fashioned acting, writing, and camerawork. Flash and style can only get a filmmaker so far when they’ve got nothing to work with but four walls, a handful of performers, and words.
It turns out that throwing a cornucopia of fully loaded firearms into the mix doesn’t hurt, either. There’s not a whole lot more to Ben Wheatley’s supercharged shootout Free Fire, in theaters Friday, than that: a crate of firearms, a motley crew of crooks with Vaseline-coated trigger fingers, and a broken-glass-riddled derelict factory. The film continues a proud tradition of one-location cinema, a challenge that cineastes have posed to themselves since first breaking free of the theater’s proscenium. Below, we’ve collected the ten finest exemplars of the form, and we’ve done you the service of ordering them in increasing size of location. Keep one eye on the way out and read on.
Buried (2010) — A casket buried underground
It sounds like something written after losing a dare: Betcha can’t spend 98 whole minutes on a movie about a guy trapped in a coffin trying to figure his way out using nothing but a cell phone and a Zippo. “Watch me,” responds director Rodrigo Cortés, burying Ryan Reynolds six feet under and putting him through a gauntlet of torment as he grasps for his life. That the film works at all feels like a minor miracle: Though the tangled plotline of betrayal and moral comeuppance mostly gets in the way, Reynolds delivers a believable and affecting performance in a role that would frighten off most actors. A realization of hell for a certain strain of fearful viewer, Cortés’s skillful direction proves that there’s no such thing as a bad idea, only a good idea waiting to be forged from it.
Devil (2010) — An elevator
This is a Schrödinger’s M. Night Shyamalan movie — it’s both his and it’s not. On one hand, Philly’s proudest son gets story-by and producer credits here, and the cockamamie twist at the end of the film comes right from his playbook. But the official directorial credit goes to John Erick Dowdle, the mind behind the more wisely titled yet generally worse No Escape. To this grungy Twilight Zone castoff about a group of strangers in a stalled elevator, Dowdle brings a supremely well-selected cast (Chris Messina! Fargo breakout Bokeem Woodbine! Christina Hendricks spouse Geoffrey Arend!) and a workman’s ingenuity with limited material. Within the confines of a single elevator, the man successfully pulls off and graphically documents more than a half-dozen stomach-turning creative kills. You’d be amazed at how many mangled corpses you can fit in a standard elevator compartment.
My Dinner With Andre (1981) — A restaurant table
A pair of old friends get together and talk, talk, talk — about food, sex, experimental theatre, their personal history, and pretty much everything else. Visually, this is the most minimal entry in a subgenre defined by its minimalism, and yet intellectually, you’d be hard-pressed to find a richer text. Director Louis Malle considers the sport of the hunt for great universal truth just as vital and productive as the conclusions his characters arrive (or fail to arrive) at. Malle stuffs any formal flexing far in the back seat, letting his casually dense screenplay stand on its own merits. You don’t get a full-blown parody on Community without a good reason.
12 Angry Men (1957) — Jury deliberation room
The single-location movie has always taken its cues from the stage, and in the case of Sidney Lumet’s immortal courtroom drama, it did so directly. Lumet adapted his parable of everyday heroism and triumphant morality from Reginald Rose’s original teleplay, and found that cinema could communicate the script’s sweltering claustrophobia even more effectively. Everybody just wants to get out of the stuffy courthouse office and off to their wives, kids or baseball games, but stubbornly principled Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda, at his peak) won’t let them cut a kid’s life short over some impatience and discomfort. With an audience legally obligated to remain captive, he mounts his valiant argument not for the boy’s innocence, but for the unsureness of his guilt. An almost naïvely idealistic depiction of what goes on behind our legal system’s closed doors, Lumet’s film is a marvel of resourcefulness as well, conjuring great drama and feeling with the shadow cast by a mounted fan or the tantalizing sight of the world outside the windows.
Panic Room (2002) — A reinforced safety chamber
Anticipating the current “Escape the Room” fad about a decade ahead of schedule (and in reverse), David Fincher’s diabolical puzzle box corners a well-to-do mother and her diabetic young daughter (Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart) in a protective space. They take shelter in the steel-and-concrete fortress that came with their new home when a trio of thugs break in under the impression they’re fleecing the previous owner. Fincher does a lot with very little; it seems as if he’s accounted for every imaginable angle, every point of entry, and every chink in the room’s armor. Say what you will about the warmed-over sentimental conclusion, but Fincher still turns one family’s night from hell into a nerve-singeing game of cat and mouse.
Rear Window (1954) — Jimmy Stewart’s living room
Alfred Hitchcock brought the one-location movie to its logical extreme with the one-take wonder Rope in 1948 (he actually cheated a little, but if anyone’s earned a mulligan, it’s him), and then perfected the schtick six years later with one of his most towering achievements. Stuck in a wheelchair with a broken leg, photographer L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) busies himself during convalescence by observing the goings-on in his neighbors’ homes, only to peer in on what looks an awful lot like a murder. Undergraduate film courses have already dissected Hitchcock’s meta-commentary on the voyeurism of cinema eight ways to Sunday, but less attention gets paid to the masterful control Hitch exerts over space and how it’s represented onscreen. It’s not enough for the action to remain centered in the courtyard within Jeffries’s block; Hitchcock’s camera doesn’t even leave the apartment, forcing the viewer into sympathy with Jeffries’s POV and the attendant ethical cloudiness.
The Invitation (2015) — A dinner party
Who among us can hold our head high and say that we haven’t fantasized about breaking with propriety and rushing out of a tense social event with zero warning? The soiree in The Invitation comes as the perfectly awkward storm, uniting estranged friends for a Big Chill-y night of party games and personal baggage. Matters soon take a dark turn, but before it all goes south, director Karyn Kusama gets some sick kicks from binding a group of distant people together through the force of polite graces. Everyone wants to go home but nobody wants to leave — it’s a self-imposed sort of trap, until, suddenly, it’s not.
Carnage (2011) — A well-appointed Park Slope brownstone
Roman Polanski’s the unofficial king of the close-quarters film, putting his theatrical experience to good use with adaptations of Death and the Maiden, Venus in Fur, and the Tony Award–winning comedy God of Carnage. Polanski shrunk both the title and its constraints, trapping a quartet of moneyed grown-ups (John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and Jodie Foster) in a handsome Brooklyn apartment for a conflict mediation that turns ugly in short order. They start out trying to resolve a scuffle between their respective sons, but upper-middle-class tensions escalate with the help of a little alcohol, and they’re howling at one another like toddlers before you can say “performative Darfur bleeding-heart liberalism.” The devious brilliance of Yasmina Reza’s script lies in how the characters convince themselves to stay put, accepting that leaving the verbal attack zone implies conceding defeat. By the point that a thoroughly liquefied Winslet bellows, “What are we still doing in this house?!” the dream home has turned into a genteel prison.
Green Room (2015) — A Nazi clubhouse
Low-profile bands on tour do what they need to in order to keep money in their pockets. For DIY punk outfit the Ain’t Rights, sometimes that means siphoning gas from some unsuspecting sucker’s automobile, and sometimes that means accepting a short-notice gig at a local skinhead stronghold. After giving them an unintended eyeful, Jeremy Saulnier’s zero-mercy action flick sequesters the young rockers in one room of the building and dares them to find a way out without getting hacked to pieces by some seriously agitated white supremacists. Saulnier generates much of the film’s intrigue from the slow process of mapping the facilities, brainstorming escape routes along with the unlucky musicians. A discovery beneath the floorboards makes their situation far worse while simultaneously offering them a chance at salvation — it’s scenery as plot twist, a far more thought-through and detail-oriented approach to the cinematic heritage of low-rent beatdowns.
Dogville (2003)— The chalk outline of a town
When Danish feather-ruffler Lars von Trier released this cruel provocation, many of his more ardent detractors wrote off his unorthodox scenic layout as art house dick-flickery, alienation for alienation’s sake. But tracing a small village with a clearly labeled schematic of streets and buildings in white chalk does more than nod to the technique’s originator, Bertolt Brecht. The gesture enforces full transparency, leaving the mysterious woman on the run played by Nicole Kidman in a state of constant exposure. She’s on the run from the mob, but she finds no protection in Dogville, only a more exacting form of vulnerability. A lot rides on Kidman’s tremulous performance as Grace, but by stripping away everything except the actors, von Trier affords her the space she needs to excel.