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6 Movies That Take Place in a Single Location (Mostly)


As we emerge from state-ordered quarantine, consider this: In movies, a locked-down set is often an artistic choice (or sometimes the result of a strapped budget). Some filmmakers find the challenges of these limitations to be a thrill in itself; for others, intimate spaces simply better serve the story.

When done on a smaller scale, film adaptations of plays can put the focus on the heart of a dialogue-driven drama. And horror movies set in constricted, no-escape spaces can intensify the dread. Here are six primarily single-location films that demonstrate how filmmakers can think outside the box — even when their work is set in an actual box.

Stream on Amazon Prime Video.

The location: A plane’s cockpit

The problem: When terrorists hijack a Berlin-to-Paris flight, it’s up to a young American co-pilot, Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to direct the aircraft to safety and, in the process, make some distressing split-second decisions.

The results: For his debut feature, the director Patrick Vollrath creates a close-quarters nail-biter that keeps you exactly where he wants you: in the pilot’s seat. So that we experience the film from Tobias’s point of view, Vollrath makes clever use of a surveillance monitor in the locked cockpit.

The screen displays impersonal glimpses of passengers as the flight attendants pass through the service curtain. Hostages held in the cabin are also only visible on the screen. By keeping tight focus on Gordon-Levitt’s commitment to his character’s emotional agony, the film pushes new buttons on old themes.

Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, iTunes and other platforms.

The location: 600 kilometers above Earth

The problem: The medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is faced with finding a way back to Earth after her space shuttle is damaged by debris from a destroyed satellite.

The results: This 2013 science-fiction drama is so utterly immersive it makes you feel like Dr. Stone. We are centered in the action, even pulled inside her astronaut’s helmet; there, we can sense the panic of free-falling into an ocean of emptiness, alone. (And you thought you’ve been self-isolating.)

Rather than relying on flashbacks to illustrate her back story, the screenwriters Alfonso Cuarón (who also directed) and his son Jonás reveal Dr. Stone’s grief through her achingly tragic soliloquy, delivered in space as she floats against a backdrop of star-speckled darkness. Cuarón’s existential spectacle sustains its own kind of emotional gravity.

Stream on Netflix.

The location: A slate-gray BMW X5

The problem: On a London-bound drive, a construction foreman, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), bounces between calls and follows his moral compass into the night.

The results: It’s hard to believe that one of the dilemmas Ivan is faced with in the writer-director Stephen Knight’s 2014 lo-fi road drama involves orchestrating a concrete pour. Even harder to believe that the film manages to render a multidimensional portrait of a flawed man from this otherwise mundane subject matter.

This is an exceptional showcase for Hardy, whose transfixing performance drives a rich, theatrical narrative that reaches dramatic heights through nothing more than phone conversations in a car.

Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, iTunes and other platforms.

The location: A working-class Pittsburgh home, but most memorably in its bare-bones backyard.

The problem: Troy (played by Denzel Washington, who also directed) struggles with his marriage (to Rose, played by Viola Davis) and tries to protect his youngest son from the same disappointments he experienced as a black man whose dreams were shattered.

The results: If you have total command of the screen like Washington and Davis do in “Fences,” then it’s fine for location to be ancillary. Staying true to August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play for this film adaptation, Davis and Washington engage in character-building repartee and deeper, meaningful dialogue to illustrate this story about one black family’s experiences in a racially divided America.

The film is appropriately intimate in scope, emphasizing the emotional weight of Wilson’s writing and the actors who bring it to life. Still, the tiny backyard setting is unforgettable. And those porch steps, certainly by the movie’s end, have their own story to tell.

Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, iTunes and other platforms.

The location: A swanky Manhattan apartment

The problem: Two prep-school pals kill their classmate, stuff him in a chest, then host a dinner party in the same room where his corpse lies. Can they keep the body concealed from their friends and finally prove their elitist superiority by doing so?

The results: Based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play, “Rope” maximizes Alfred Hitchcock’s minimalist approach. With just an apartment and its panoramic view of the city skyline to work with, Hitchcock relies on technique — his ability to make the film appear as one long, continuous shot — and the play’s sharp, catty, tension-building dialogue.

Hitchcock lets the awkwardness of the dead-body-in-the-room setup be the film’s real star.

Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, iTunes and other platforms.

The location: A wooden coffin

The problem: An Iraq-based American civilian truck driver, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), is buried alive. His air supply is diminishing, and he has nothing but a few tools to help him escape.

The results: Ninety-five minutes is a long time to be stuffed in a coffin. But with the director Rodrigo Cortés’s fraught 2010 thriller, he makes a bone-chilling case for setting an entire movie in a big box with a single onscreen character.

We first find Paul under the flickering glow of a lighter, the blood vessels in his eye in sharp focus. The film’s use of frantic camerawork and close-ups paired with Reynolds’s strong, desperate-to-escape performance establish an environment that is so wincingly claustrophobic, you might try to look for a way out, too.

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