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I’m a huge fan of movies that have a single location, especially if the film’s premise is confined to one specific room. It really forces the writers and director to exercise their creativity to wring the most drama and tension out of every scene, and the result is usually more interesting than big set pieces and done-to-death action scenes.
Here are some of the better films like this that I’ve seen over the years.
A construction project manager is on the road when he receives a series of escalating phone calls—from his work, from his family, and from an ex-lover—that threaten to tear down the life he’s built for himself.
The entire film takes place inside the car as he drives, but with Tom Hardy’s stellar performance, there isn’t a dull moment. You’ll be on the edge of your seat, feeling just as trapped as he is.
2. 12 Angry Men
Twelve jurors on a controversial court case are locked in a room to deliberate a verdict—and while everyone thinks the defendant is guilty, one man isn’t convinced.
As far as dialogue films go, 12 Angry Men is as tense as it gets. The evolution of the case is interesting enough, but the way it speaks to deeper themes like justice, fair trials, the importance of standing up for one’s convictions, and the power that one man can have even in the face of staunch opposition? It’s a soul-shaking film. And the 1997 remake isn’t half-bad either!
The Earth has turned uninhabitable, so two men hole up in a fully-outfitted underground bunker to live out their days. A woman wakes up as their captive and the last thing she can remember is a car crash.
While this film’s tie-in to the Cloverfield franchise is extremely shallow, I don’t care because 10 Cloverfield Lane stands well on its own. The trapped-in-a-bunker scenario works perfectly to ratchet up tension over the course of the story, and nothing quite seems right even when things are going swell. A must-see for fans of psychological suspense.
A man wakes up buried alive in a coffin. Using only what he has in his pockets, he must find a way to effect survival for himself—but things quickly take a dark turn.
The full 95-minute runtime of this film is spent inside a dark coffin, but the time flies by. You thought one room was suffocating? You haven’t seen anything yet. Buried has way more nail-biting tension than it has any right to, and I pin most of it on the fantastic performance of Ryan Reynolds as The Man. That’s right: You thought Ryan Reynolds could only do comedy? Think again! His acting range will surprise you.
A group of friends throw a dinner party, but things take a strange turn when a comet flies by overhead and the power goes out.
Coherence is one of the finest mind-benders I’ve ever seen. That it takes place in one house—with some scenes right outside the house—it feels a bit cheap to include it here. But few films manage to blend science fiction with psychological suspense as well as Coherence, and I highly recommend it. That’s about as much as I’ll say since I don’t want to spoil anything about this wild ride.
6. Phone Booth
A self-important publicist finds himself trapped in a New York City phone booth, pinned there by an unknown sniper for an unknown reason.
The premise is a bit incredible, but Phone Booth is way underrated in my book. It wrings every ounce of drama possible out of the scenario, and leads to a fitting and satisfactory climax. It has all the makings of a great thriller. Haven’t seen it yet? The technology in the film hasn’t aged so well, but get past the first 5-10 minutes and you’ll be glued to the screen to the end.
7. All Is Lost
After a lone sailor crashes into a stray shipping container out in the middle of the ocean, his boat capsizes and he must do everything he can to survive.
You’ve heard of dialogue-only films? How about dialogue-free films? All Is Lost is unique in that after the short narrative voiceover at the start, there isn’t a single line of dialogue all the way to the end. That’s 100 minutes of riveting, emotional, soul-crushing silence as this man weathers the ocean. It’s an experience, and one of my favorite films that I’ll only watch once. It’s that tense and draining.
For the last step in a corporate hiring process, eight nameless candidates are locked together in a strange room and left to themselves. It quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary job or company.
If you love mystery thrillers, Exam is a shining example of how to do one well while being restricted to a single room. It’s aided by the fact that the entire cast were unknowns at this point (you may recognize Gemma Chan). Exam is one question after another, and even when a question is answered, more questions are raised. Don’t worry: there is a clear wrap-up to the narrative at the end.
When a man is invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife, along with several of their mutual friends, he reluctantly accepts… but something sinister is going on.
The Invitation is a horror film, but it isn’t supernatural or gruesome. It’s more of a mystery wrapped up in the trappings of a horror flick. It’s equal parts unsettling, thrilling, and puzzling. I wouldn’t watch it again because it doesn’t really warrant another viewing, but the first time through was enjoyable enough. And it all takes place inside a gorgeous mansion. Isn’t that nice?
A group of colleagues throw a party for a retiring professor, who drops a bombshell on them: he’s much older than he appears to be.
Sometimes described as a “play caught on film,” The Man From Earth is nothing but dialogue and takes place in one setting: the retirement party. It’s basically a thought experiment packaged in a narrative. How would you respond if someone claimed to be 14,000 years old? Total science fiction, of course, but an interesting film nonetheless. I consider it one of the best time travel movies of all time.