Sometimes you need something simpler. You are tired of seeing robots punching each other. Tired of men in ridiculous tight outfits punching each other. After seeing so many architectural landmarks go up in flames, even that tends to get boring. Sometimes what you need to see is just a bunch of people trying to figure things out in a single room.
In this list we will take a look at several films that takes place mostly in one room. The genres differentiate, but what connects them is the simplicity of the focus on the human aspect that drives essential storytelling.
A story doesn’t work because of all the shits and giggles, a story works because you care about the people in their particular situation. Whether this situation could be put into a crime film, a thriller, a western, a drama, or even a comedy, it doesn’t matter. In their innate simplicity they prove that that there’s no need for any big Hollywood extravagance.
All you need is to make sure that the audience cares about the story of these characters on screen, and their pathos, no matter how complex, could easily be done justice in a single room or in a limited location. There’s even a certain intimacy that arrives by having it set in a limited location, a similar feeling you have from watching a great stage play. It could even be – dare I say it – more powerful.
10. The Man from Earth
“The Man from Earth” takes place mostly in one single room during a farewell party of a university professor, John Oldman (David Lee Smith), who reveals to his colleagues that he’s actually 1,400 years old, a cro-magnon human. Something that obviously raises a lot of eyebrows from his educated friends who spend the rest of the film trying to sort out the validity of his outlandish claim.
Yet the story John Oldman entails is superbly entertaining and fascinating, giving a sort of alternative myth and history to the ways of the world. You will see in the end whether or not he’s actually telling the truth, but I will say that it has a perfectly satisfying conclusion.
This is a quintessential example of a film with people just talking in a room and making it grade-A entertainment. Obviously this is helped by the excellent cast with ‘Candyman’ himself Tony Todd, William Katt and the standout, the great Richard Riehle.
A highly underrated film that deserves to be seen by everyone.
This list could not be complete without Stephen King’s classic story of a famous writer meeting his most devoted fan. Paul Sheldon (James Caan in one of his greatest roles) is a writer of a classic series of romantic fiction, who gets into an accident during a blizzard and is saved by Annie, a former nurse (a role that made Kathy Bates immediately a star and even earned her an Oscar).
At first she seems like the dopiest but sweetest woman in the world, but when she reads his new manuscript, which he was about to give to his publisher (Lauren Bacall), and reads that the titular character meets her demise, all that sweetness is soon engulfed by her innate psychopathic rage. She forces him to rewrite the final chapter of the series as he tries to find a way to escape.
The late great stuntman Richard Farnsworth plays Buster, the local sheriff who investigates Paul’s disappearance. The scene in which he has a small typical argument with his wife (the great Frances Sternhagen) shows the brilliance of writer William Goldman, who adapted the screenplay. The humanity and the naturalness makes this character, who could have been just there for suspense, much more meaningful and interesting.
“Misery” is filled with some gruesome scenes (particularly the ones that include ‘hobbling’) and fantastic suspense (showing the great range of director Rob Reiner). It might not involve the great extent of the novel’s gruesomeness (particularly the one where Annie viciously slaughters a state trooper with a lawnmower), or one of the novel’s titular conflicts (concerning Paul’s eventual addiction to painkillers), but this film this is without a doubt one of the best Stephen King film adaptations.
8. The Sunset Limited
Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest voices of American literature and luckily, many notable filmmakers have done justice to their adaptation of his work. Ridley Scott did this with probably his most underrated film, “The Counselor”. The Coen brothers made one of the most loyal book adaptations ever with the instant classic, “No Country for Old Men”.
Billy Bob Thornton’s adaptation of “All the Pretty Horses” was sadly butchered by the studio. James Franco did a good job with the sordid tale of “Child of God”. And could anyone have done a better job than John Hillcoat did with “The Road”? He filmed a powerful drama based on one of his most powerful novels. Yet, out of all these films, “The Sunset Limited” has always been a personal favorite of mine.
It espouses the darkness of all of McCarthy’s work through mere dialogue instead of poetic yet violent savagery. The whole film takes place in a single room, between two persons called White (Tommy Lee Jones) and Black (Samuel Jackson). In their long conversation, we begin to understand that Black saved White from committing suicide by jumping in front of a train. Since Black is a devoted Christian and White is a despondent intellectual who despises religion, soon enough the nature of reality, faith and life is discussed in the beautiful way that only Cormac McCarthy can write.
Both actors deliver some of their career bests. Jones also directed this HBO production and even with the limited location, he manages to ensure the needed atmosphere to do this story justice. The philosophical diatribe doesn’t hold back on the darkness.
The nihilism that is seeped into this film can afflict even the most faithful among us. Yet the light espoused by the faithful Black can even sway the most hardened atheist. In the end, the film is not really about religion vs. atheism – it’s about the meaning of life, if there’s any meaning at all. It’s about connecting with people. Our connection with death. Holding on to life, even if there’s no meaning. Forgiving oneself. Starting over. Letting go, taking the Sunset limited, if that’s the only place you will feel home.
It’s an endless diatribe. It never ends until it does, and then, even the meaning of things ending cease to have any meaning because that is the nature of oblivion. The dark notions of the film go beyond what many people are comfortable with, but if you can manage through, you will see something truly special.
Sometimes you find yourself agreeing more with White, other times more with Black. It can change with each viewing. That, my friend, is the power of Cormac McCarthy’s immortal play and Tommy Lee Jones’ directing.
7. Free Fire
One of the greatest films and most fun films of the year is Ben Wheatley’s “Free Fire”. Following up the critically acclaimed “High-Rise”, a film which was based on a J.G. Ballard novel and, like the source material, was heavy with philosophical allegories, Wheatley and his writing partner (and actual partner) Amy Jump decided on something much more simple, yet ever satisfying.
A throwback to the classic 70’s crime flicks, the film is a simple ‘deal-gone-bad’ film involving arms dealers and IRA members. Technically the whole film is set inside a warehouse, not just a single room, but who cares. This film deserves to be talked about at every turn.
Sharlto Copley plays Vern, a narcissistic and wannabe tough guy who leads the gang of arms dealers while Cillian Murphy plays Chris, the more noble IRA leader. Yet there’s not really a main character in the film. Everyone gets their chance to shine.
There’s Michael Smiley playing Frank, Chris’s closest confidant and standout in the film. Armie Hammer is incredible fun as Vern’s pot-smoking bodyguard. Sam Riley and Jack Reynor play the emotionally unstable members on different sides, who are basically the instigators of the film’s long drawn-out shoot-out.
Brie Larson is the only female among the cast; she plays the person who brokered the deal amongst these two gangs. The rest of the cast all do a great job and while none of them are essentially sympathetic characters, all of them are a joy to watch.
The film is basically a crime-comedy, but the action deserves mentioning as well. It might involve a whole lot of explosions, but every gunshot is loud and fierce, just as it should be. Normally when someone pulls a trigger, the shot is nothing more than a loud pop. In this film it’s an actual BANG.
The damage they inflict is done realistically; the characters who are shot in the leg hobble through the rest of the movie and are in agony. But it’s mostly the human reactions to the panic and disarray that makes this film work.
It’s another masterpiece from a director who never seems to disappoint.
6. Reservoir Dogs
This seems to be the obvious choice. The story of surviving criminals after a botched jewelry heist, who are trying to fish out which one of them is an informant, has been an instant cinematic classic. Purists will remind us that its infamous writer Quentin Tarantino ‘borrowed’ a lot of of its elements from Hong Kong classic “City on Fire”. It probably does. But does that one have a long-winded monologue about not tipping and the meaning behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”? I guess not.
Most of the story takes place in the criminals’ rendezvous; while we never see the actual heist, we only hear them talking about it, and as we hear how their most psychotic member, Mr. Blonde (one of Michael Madsen’s greatest roles), took care of dissenting hostages, it probably was better we didn’t see it.
It’s hard to say which of the cast members is the standout. Perhaps it’s Harvey Keitel, since his journey is possibly the most tragic with his constant protection for Mr. Orange (Tim Roth, also a standout), who turns out to be an informant. Or maybe it’s Steve Buscemi, whose talkative Mr. Pink feels that his code name is a little too swishy, if you understand what I mean.
The rest of the fantastic cast includes the late great grouchy Lawrence Tierney as Joe the Boss (apparently a nightmare to work with, confirmed as well by Matt Groening and Jerry Seinfeld, who later worked with him as well), the late great Chris Penn as the boss’s son, the late great crime author Edward Bunker as Mr. Blue, and even Tarantino in a role himself, who plays the bank robber with the unfortunate code name of Mr. Brown.