There are some terrific films that utilise pretty much one single set for their drama – and here are our top ten choices.
It’s hard to find a blockbuster film that doesn’t span multiple locations in the modern era. Audiences want explosions and over-dramatic dialogue. The time for realism and suspense is over and although the likes of Inside No.9 and the excellent Family Guy episode ‘Brian & Stewie’ have demonstrated a slight resurgence, one location films are almost exclusively reserved for the independent, low-budget circuit.
However, there’s no denying that some great cinema has built up impressive longevity over the years, despite (mostly) using just one location. Considering that the current worldwide health situation has potentially left you stuck in one room yourself, we’ve ranked the 10 best films that leave their characters to do exactly the same thing.
The Setting: An Exam Room
Created by British director Stuart Hazeldine, the Bafta-nominated psychological thriller The Exam follows a group of eight as they take an exam for a job they don’t really know anything about. The only rules: the candidates must not talk to the invigilator or the armed guard, must not spoil their paper, and must not leave the room. You’d imagine a few questions might arise about the nature of the exam if it needs an armed guard, but there you go. As the film isn’t set over a particularly long period, the one-room setting isn’t exactly claustrophobic, but provides a sense of creepy mystery as things take a dramatic turn.
9. The Man From Earth
The Setting: A Farewell Party
Despite the humble setting, 2007’s The Man From Earth is certainly a grand tale. In fact, the entire background of the film is built around a man who cannot age. He was, amongst other things, born in the Palaeolithic era, became a disciple of Buddha and owns an original Van Gogh, gifted to him by the artist himself. Juxtaposing this story against a setting that doesn’t leave the same house is a bold move from director Richard Schenkman, but it works strangely well. Also, the main character is called John Oldman. Old man. Is that a bit too on the nose? Decide for yourself…
The Setting: Various Cubes
Often considered the spiritual predecessor to Saw (or the film Saw 'borrowed from’, depending on which side of the fence you sit), Cube has become a cult phenomenon. Technically, the film is set in multiple different cubes, but because they all look roughly the same and just the one cube was actually used for filming, we can count it as a single setting film. Full of brutal death and complex mathematics, the film uses its limited resources to its advantage, creating a tense atmosphere and unique setting despite pretty much forcing its characters to act on an empty stage. Don’t rush to watch the sequel or the prequel though…
The Setting: A Coffin
A year after he made his first, fleeting, appearance as Deadpool (and six years before the character became a cultural icon), Ryan Reynolds spent 16 days locked in a coffin. He plays Paul Conroy, an American kidnapped by terrorists in 2006 Iraq, locked away and armed only with a lighter and a mobile phone. Considering the entire film is set in an actual coffin, Buried takes claustrophobia to new heights. Reynolds has since explained that he never wants to experience anything similar to his final day of filming again, which seems fair enough.
6. 127 Hours
The Setting: A Canyon
2010 must have been a good year for single-setting films, with 127 Hours coming out just days after Buried. On much bigger budget, the benefit of a well-known true story as its backbone and the direction of Danny Boyle on its side, this film was able to be a bigger box office success. Trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon, Aron Ralston (James Franco) simply has to stay alive. And that’s pretty much it. Somehow, Boyle turns a film almost without a greater plot into a six-time Academy Award nominated blockbuster. Respite comes from Ralston’s occasional hallucinations that lead us to new locations, but if anything, this just makes the return to his impossible situation harder every time.
The Setting: An Apartment
Adapted from the 1929 play of the same name, Rope comes from the camera of the inimitable Alfred Hitchcock. The director is known for his uncanny ability to transform a single setting into a breeding ground for tension, and this film is no different. He doubles its artistic merit by editing it most of the film into one long shot. Story-wise, it follows the escapades of Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan directly after they commit what they believe to be the ‘perfect murder’, but as you may expect from Hitchcock, twists and turns lurk around every corner.
The Setting: A Manor House
Putting Laurence Olivier opposite Michael Caine is a genius, albeit expensive, move from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Olivier plays writer Andrew Wyke, while Caine plays hairdresser Milo Tindle. If you think about it, it sort of seems like the two actors should have swapped roles really, but that only adds to the impact. The initial exchange in which Andrew explains that he wants Milo to take his wife off his hands seems strange enough, but the reveal that this entire plan was simply an elaborate way to frame Milo for robbery lets the audience know that things around about to get a whole lot weirder.
The Setting: A Flat
Perhaps expectedly, we’re returning to Alfred Hitchcock’s era of ‘limited setting’ films once again, this time with Dial M For Murder. For some reason, the film was slated for a 3-D release, but audiences very quickly lost interest in this process. It isn’t clear what 3-D would have done for the film, which is a subtle, mysterious exploration of attempted murder led by the exceptional performances of Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings and John Williams. The same story was remade in the 90s as A Perfect Murder, albeit with a lot more locations.
2. Rear Window
The Setting: An Apartment
We have to return to Hitchcock for one final time, this time for the widely celebrated Rear Window. It’s in pretty much every list of ‘The Best Films Ever’, was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and made its way into the National Film Registry in 1997. And rightly so. Grace Kelly makes a welcome return to Hitchcockian cinema, though it’s James Stewart’s character of Jeff who spends the most time on screen. Confined to a wheelchair, the photographer spends his time watching his neighbours and assigning them personalities and stories based on what he thinks is happening in their apartment. It sounds like a simple concept, but it’s simplicity is effective enough to have been referenced, parodied and paid tribute to in just about every medium since. The huge set was built for real, too, right down to running water…
The Setting: A Courtroom
Arguably the most well-known single-setting film of all time, 12 Angry Men is a cinematic masterpiece, and a really accessible one. Never mind the one inch barrier of subtitles, get over the barrier of black and white, and you’re in for an absolute treat. The 12 unnamed jurors are the subject of the entire film, as they debate whether an 18-year-old is responsible for the murder of his father. Henry Fonda’s Juror 8 is the only man to vote ‘not guilty’ at first, but over the next 90 minutes, his influence is felt around the courtroom. As if the the closed setting wasn’t enough, director Sidney Lumet made sure that as the film progressed, the camera angles became closer and closer to the faces of the men. The end result is unnervingly suffocating. And it couldn’t be more perfect.
Honourable mentions: Richard Linklater’s Tape, horror movie Pontypool, and all the ones you’re hopefully going to recommend in the comments below…
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