Weekend Roundtable: You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

This week’s theatrical release of ‘Gravity’ is the latest in an intriguing genre of films that take place primarily in a single location with a small cast of characters. If you think that sounds like an incredibly narrow and limited criteria to define a movie by, you might be amazed at how many of these there are when you think about it, from ‘Alien’ to ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and countless more. For this week’s Roundtable, we look at some of our favorite movies set in confined locations.

Some rules: Some of these confined-location movies may only have one or two characters (like ‘Gravity’ or ‘Open Water’, for example). Others may have a larger group (such as Luis Buñuel’s surreal masterpiece ‘The Exterminating Angel’). It’s OK if the movie has a few establishing or cutaway scenes to other locations, but the main action over the course of the story should take place in one spot. It is not required that the characters be trapped in the location, just that (for whatever reason) they mostly stay there. Some coming and going is acceptable.

Aaron Peck

The unbelievable tension of ‘Rear Window‘ is directly related to the claustrophobic feeling you have while watching it. This sense of helplessness ties your stomach in knots no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie. The entire film is viewed from the confines of L.B. Jefferies’ apartment, which overlooks one of cinema’s most memorable movie sets. The genuis of this set-up is that the story can be confined to one space while still showing a variety of things happening. Hitchcock understands what makes the idea of anonymous voyeurism so titillating. He perfectly conveys the excitement and, in contrast, the utter helplessness that comes from L.B.’s situation. I honestly can’t think of a movie that uses the idea of a confined location better than ‘Rear Window’.

Michael Spike Steinbacher

Although Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliantly demented 1948 classic ‘Rope‘ wasn’t shot in one continuous take (not technically even possible at the time), it was edited in a way to appear so. Two brilliant and possibly nihilist dandies commit cold-blooded murder to put Nietzsche’s Superman philosophy to the test. They meet their match when their old headmaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) pieces things together at a macabre dinner party and – horrified to discover that HE was their inspiration – sees that they pay the price for their hubris. The short movie plays out in their luxurious apartment, and Hitchcock’s brilliant use of time and space makes for a unique, tense, almost seemingly real-time thriller.

Shannon Nutt

My favorite movie set primarily in a single location is director Sidney Lumet’s 1957 masterpiece ‘12 Angry Men‘. Aside from a short scene at the beginning and a short scene at the end, the film takes place exclusively in a courthouse jury deliberation room, where the temperature in the claustrophobic setting is matched only by the heated tension of the jurors themselves. The screenplay was originally written for and broadcast on TV in 1954, and was remade for television again in 1997, but Lumet’s version remains the definitive telling of the story.

Tom Landy

I’m a big fan of a little 1997 Canadian psychological thriller entitled ‘Cube‘. The movie is about seven people who awaken and find themselves trapped inside a massive, wall-shifting cube with no apparent way out. As they desperately search for freedom, they’re killed off one-by-one and slowly learn things about each other that cause mistrust among the group. Everyone is a suspect and everyone is to blame, creating a unique and highly tense sci-fi film like no other.

Mike Attebery

September‘ is one of those Woody Allen movies that you never hear anyone mention, which is a real shame, because it’s a true Allen treasure. Set in a Vermont country house at the start of fall, the film follows a multi-generational cast comprised of Mia Farrow, Diane Wiest, Elaine Stritch, Sam Waterston, Jack Warden and the always wonderful Denholm Elliott as characters who are all in and out of some form of love. That’s it. It couldn’t be simpler. Yet as with anything Woody makes, there are more layers here than initially meet the eye. By the time you’re done roaming the insides of this old house, you’ll likely have seen or heard something that will remind you of the loves — young, faded, undying or unrequited — in your own life.

Luke Hickman

I’m quite a big fan of Danny Boyle. Before it was released, I kept hearing worried and skeptical buzz about the story of ‘127 Hours‘, the big-screen depiction of Aron Ralston’s horrific true story, but I never doubted it. I’d hear, “How can a movie about a guy being stuck behind a rock be entertaining?” I’ll tell you how – you let Danny Boyle direct it.

Ralston, of course, became famous for cutting off his own arm after five days of being crushed and pinched between an 800-pound boulder and a slot canyon wall. The naysayers were not only worried about the film’s isolated and solitary location, but the against-the-grain casting of James Franco as the film’s lead. With Boyle’s track record, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that he could make it work – but could Franco carry it? Yes! He earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. Together, Boyle and Franco turned this limited non-fiction story into a work of art, a triumphant tale that places you between a rock and a hard place along with its central character. Knowing the horrific act that has to come by the end of the story, you dread it. There’s a tangible tension about it. But because Boyle and Franco make you fall in love with the desperate character, when it comes to that grisly point, you’re ready for it. You’ve been prepared. You can handle it. The way that the movie is filmed makes you feel like you’re there by his side. You’re rooting him on. You know the ending and you know that he’s capable of it, so you become Ralston’s cheerleader. There are very few films that have pulled me in as much as ‘127 Hours’, and for that, I love it.

Brian Hoss

Few directors understand how to convey the feeling of confinement better than Roman Polanski. ‘Death and the Maiden‘ features three characters who, upon entering a house together, become embroiled in a vicious pursuit of truth, justice and vengeance. Their struggle is dangerous and self-perpetuated, but their extraordinary circumstances offer no alternative. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the plot, but Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley devour their respective roles. The film is an adaptation of a play, and thus the confined setting aids in enforcing the various emotions and themes of the story.

Gordon Miller

Based on David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, James Foley’s ‘Glengarry Glen Ross‘ mainly takes place in a nondescript office owned by two unseen figures known as Mitch and Murray. Four salesmen, Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon), Dave Moss (Ed Harris), George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), and Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), work in that office, and most o them are underperforming.

To motivate them, Mitch and Murray send over Blake (Alec Baldwin, delivering the performance of his career in a scene that runs just a few minutes and was written by Mamet specifically for the film). After being told the bottom two performers of the month will be fired, the next morning finds the office broken into, the leads stolen, and everyone a suspect.

The cast is brilliant as they deliver Mamet’s outstanding dialogue. There’s no action but talking, yet the actors make it completely captivating.

Jack Lilburn

My pick is ‘Russian Ark‘, which, and I do not exaggerate here, is one of the most incredibly ambitious cinematic undertakings ever put to screen. The film not only takes place in one location (the enormous Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia), it’s also just one continuous 99 minute take, involving 2,000-plus actors hitting their cues perfectly. As we move from room to room, we also travel through different periods of Russian history, from Catherine the Great to the Second World War, with only a curmudgeonly French nobleman to guide us. I know this may be a tough sell for some, but ‘Russian Ark’ is one of those rare films that reminds us of the breathtaking powers of pure cinema. If you haven’t’ seen it, you’re missing out.

Josh Zyber

As Brian mentioned, Roman Polanski is a master at dealing with the dynamics of characters trapped by their environments. Most emblematic of this is his famed “Apartment Trilogy,” comprised of three narratively-unrelated but thematically-connected movies about people going nuts in their homes. In Polanski’s first English-language feature, ‘Repulsion‘, Catherine Deneuve slowly loses her mind when her sister leaves her alone for a two-week vacation. In ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘, Mia Farrow becomes convinced that her neighbors are devil-worshippers who want to steal her child.

Perhaps the most flawed but also most intriguing entry in this trilogy is ‘The Tenant‘, which stars Polanski himself in a male-perspective reworking of the first, ‘Repulsion’. Produced not long after the murder of his wife and just prior to his personal scandal, the film can be read as a look into the torment and psychosis going through the director’s own head during the most tumultuous period in his life and career.

What other examples of movies limited to a single location can you think of? Tell us in the Comments.


  1. ‘Buried’, which stars Ryan Reynolds is one of the scariest and well done films in recent ages. The entire film… and i mean the entire film was shot inside a coffin, where Reynolds is kidnapped and wakes up inside a coffin buried 3 feet deep. He has a mobile phone and flashlight. This film is so claustrophobic that I almost had a panic attack the first time I watched it. The angles the director uses to keep things flowing at a fast pace are amazing. This is a pure survival story with a fast time limit. Great film.

    • njscorpio

      Being closterphobic, I found this movie to be VERY intense. I loved it! It was my first thought on this subject.

      • William Henley

        Being clostrophobic is the very reason that I still have nightmares from The Cube to this day

  2. Dan007

    This isn’t a movie, but when I saw this round table, the first thing that came to mind was the Seinfeld episode where the whole episode was shown in “the Chinese restraunt”, as the whole crew waited for the table to open up…such a classic!

    • My first thought was an episode of a television series too – the ‘Break Bad’ episode titled ‘Fly’ or ‘The Fly’ (can’t remember which it is). Rian Johnson directed the hell out of that episode, showing exactly how a bottle episode should be done.

  3. njscorpio

    Some of my favorites…

    – Buried (mentioned above. A movie so good that it made me think Ryan Reynolds is a good actor!)

    – All three of the Cube movies (I’m a fan of that particular series).

    – Carnage (another Polanski movie that fits the bill very well)

    – The Wages of Fear. Sure, with it’s large cast, and variety of outdoor settings, it may not feel appropriate for this list. But considering how geographically trapped the characters are, and how desperate they are to leave, creates a desperate and closterphobic tension.

  4. ‘Disturbia’. I know it’s a Rear Window rip-off, but I like it. I even have both soundtracks (the score and the pop album). I can’t help it.

  5. Two Girls and a Cup, just kidding Two Girls and a Guy with Robert Downey Jr. Although its been a while since I saw it, I really enjoyed it and RDJ really made me laugh in that movie. I like how it sort of felt like a stage play. I was totally crushing on Heather Graham back then too.
    I also have to agree with Glengarry GlenRoss, those guys were in their prime and killed it in that movie.
    Oh,I also feel like John Carpenter’s The Thing qualifies. One of my all time favorites. Well acted, scary, suspenseful, gory. The setting couldn’t be more perfect.

  6. shawn

    Them is one of my favorite horror films, there are some scenes that don’t take place at the house, but I think it qualifies. It is the scariest home invasion film I’ve ever seen and unlike some the scares don’t diminish over time.

    I also like Dinner Rush which takes place in a resteraunt the entire movie. Just good acting and writing that feels like you are just observing the flow of people on a random night.

  7. Paul

    I think “Moon” fits the description of this category. Sam Rockwell’s performance is absolutely amazing and even though he has a moon base to roam around in and basically the whole of the Moon as well, you still can’t help but feel isolated, confined and alone right along with him. Great film.

    • Johan

      Hear, hear! I was about to mention Moon, but you did it before me. It is one of my favorite movies to be honest, very good performance by Sam Rockwell indeed and such a great soundtrack as well!
      I did feel like I could go nowhere and was confined to such a small station, the low ceiling was a good touch, as that made it feel as if it was even smaller.

  8. I loved the claustrophobic atmosphere in “Dog Day Afternoon”.
    Another film that came to mind was “Unknown” from 2006 (the one with Jim Caviezel and Greg Kinnear not the Liam Neeson film).

  9. Bill

    How about My Dinner With Andre? Two hours of over the dinner table conversation. Or Sissy Spacek in ‘Night Mother. Spacek and her mother (Anne Bancroft?) have one last evening together at home as the daughter prepares to commit suicide.

  10. Todd

    One of my all time favorite movies takes place in one claustrophobic location…The Poseidon Adventure. (1972). Sure it takes place on a giant, overturned ocean liner and the cast goes through many rooms to make their escape, but I’ve always loved the single setting. I think what makes this film so amazing is that it starts on the ship and finishes on the ship…there are no cutaways to people on shore trying to help…it’s just the viewer and the amazing cast, alone, fighting for survival for two hours…another great example would be Alfred Hirchcocks Lifeboat!

  11. RollTide1017

    The Poseidon Adventure is one of my favorite movies and the first thing that came to mind when I saw this Roundtable.

  12. Dimwit

    No love for Phonebooth? Even with Farrel’s shifting accent it’s still a tense thriller.

    Another decent one is Liberty Stands Still. Not quite as claustraphobic it’s still one location.

  13. Boston007

    All great choices. The first time I saw 12 Angry Men, when the movie was finished I stood back and said, I can’t believe that all took place in one room!

  14. William Henley

    Would “Airplane!” “Red Planet” “2010” “Titanic”, “Logan’s Run” “Total Recall” and movies along those lines count as confined location movies?

    • I don’t know the definition in this roundtable, but I’d say the number of sets should be limited to one or two.

      If a movie takes place in 20 different rooms within the same building, I wouldn’t call it a confined location movie.