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Being stuck is entertaining - confinement movies
There are very few things that can affect our mental states the way that pressure of isolated spaces can. Nowhere to hide from the people that just rub you the wrong way. Nowhere to run, when things get aggressive. You're stuck. Stuck with your fears, your demons. Stuck with needs and cravings you can do nothing about (I swear, if I had to go just a few days without cheese, I'd loose my mind. You just don't do that to a person). A compelling theme that can be traced as far as Robinson Crusoe, if not farther.
While the theme can give us a lot of insight into the human mind, it is also adequately hard to write for. The focus is constantly on a limited cast, so the characters have to be not just interesting by themselves, but also have to have a certain type of chemistry together that can last for throughout the whole ordeal. This gives pace to the way things escalate and provides us with both tension and a deeper understanding of the human id... and also, a whole new level of disdain for human beings, because if there's one thing confinement stories teach us, it's that we are horrible, horrible people.
From a producing standpoint, telling such a story in a movie or a book may be quite a risk. The sets are cheap, for one, but in the end, they don't matter. What matters is delivery. Whether it be written word or an actor that embodies the vision of the story, they are paramount to the experience, because there is nothing here to distract from any flaws in the characters' behaviour. No explosions, no action, no side plots. If the confinement part isn't solid, the audience will not be engaged.
So it's easy to see, why confinement is a tough subject to tackle. I'd love to be able to call it its own genre, but thus far, the idea isn't too spread as far as I can tell. It gets even murkier, as the downsides of such storytelling are often addressed, by mixing in other story elements or giving the trapped characters secondary focus at best.
Still, I'm here and try to convince you that the idea of a separate genre, would make sense. That it can be versatile and be tackled in many ways and produce different results, yet still keep the confinement theme solid. How will we go about it? By making a list. Why? Because this is the internet and I am all out of cats. What's the rules? I will produce a set of works and list them according to the number of characters that are trapped together. Quality-wise, we won't be pitting the stories against each other here. Only those will be mentioned that I would actually recommend in the first place.
Das Experiment (20 Versuchskaninchen) / The Experiment (26 guinea pigs)
Right off the bat, we have a special treat here. An confinement movie based on real events. Ever hear of the Stanford Experiment? In this delightful little study, people were separated to play roles of guards and prisoners and then monitored. The experiment was supposed to last for fourteen days. It didn't even last two before things started to escalate. You may notice I've written the name in both German and English with different body counts. That's because the German movie got a Hollywood remake with a bigger cast. The remake, feels far less subtle about the subject and definitely forces the flow of the escalation a bit more, so if you only wish to see one, I'd pick the original. But can't say I'd completely discourage people from seeing the remake. (Also, this is how long it took me to break my own “no comparison” rule. Go me!)
12 Angry men (12 angry men)
A jury of twelve men are to decide whether to convict a young boy of murder. At first, the case seem fairly straightforward. Everyone's given up on the boy, his defence attorney included. That is, until one member of the jury decides to vote not guilty and asks that the case be discussed. The men can't leave the room until they come to a unanimous ruling, so they agree. What follows is a retelling of the crime within a single room, where not only the evidence is challenged, but also the very perception these men hold on society. As much as other movies with confinement themes tend to show the worst in society, 12 Angry Men might be a prime example of the hope we have that society can change. With good reason regarded by many as one of the best movies of all time.
Exam (8 applicants)
In a fictional setting, where a new illness is killing countless of people, 8 candidates are offered a very special job that would potentially keep them and their loved ones safe. And also provide all the money in the world of course. However, the most prestigious job known to man requires a rather unique approach to picking the ultimate candidate. They are led into a room and given a blank paper to prove themselves. Only, damaging the paper in the slightest means instant disqualification. With only one opening available and no answers in sight, people start to play with and against each other to find out what's going on. The cast of characters is colourful and they mesh well with each other to create great pacing. Each time a character is sent away from the room, the desperation can be felt in the same way, as if someone was just sent out to die. And for all we know, that's exactly what disqualification at this job could mean.
Carnage (4 psychotic parents)
Based on the play God of Carnage, this film tackles being trapped in a place from a completely different perspective. The four individuals in the story aren't bound by any physical means to each other. They can leave at any time they want. Though through their personal beliefs or social standards, they wind up in the same room together, coming back to expose each others flaws and vices, opening wounds and getting into drunken arguments. A well blended mix of drama and humour discusses stereotypes and arbitrary standards as well as the morality behind them. Does it sound a bit like “Who's afraid of Virginia Woolfe?” to you? It very well should. Never seen “Who's afraid of Virginia Woolfe?” I'd recommend watching that too then.
No exit (3 damned souls)
Probably one of the most classic examples, this play coined the phrase that most confinement stories take as inspiration. “Hell is other people.” Three damned souls are locked up in a room in hell together. At first the sight of the room is rather underwhelming. Where the three expected torture devices and other cruelties, they are treated to a rather unremarkable environment. Only bit by bit do they reveal things about themselves and how each other's company might actually be the most fitting punishment they could have received.
Saw I (2 pieces of meat)
Elaborate punishment was not the only thing that made the Saw series so successful. The confinement element and the bouncing off pressure between imprisoned characters had a strong presence throughout the franchise. Whether most of it was good or not... is up for debate. However, to gain lasting appeal, the franchise needed a solid start. With two people trapped in a room trying to work with each other to solve puzzles and find out why they are trapped together, this was exactly the case. The scenes between the photographer and the doctor were well acted and the element of a time limit helped escalate things very quickly, creating a memorable experience that set the tone for a series to come.
So we are now down to two people... Can we still go any lower? Is there a way for a single person to have enough range, enough presence to carry a movie all by themselves? It's been attempted several times. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks decided on extreme vacationing on a deserted island. In Buried, an even more extreme setting, someone got so upset at Ryan Reynolds for Green Lantern, that they stuck him in a coffin and, well, buried him alive. But right now, I'd like to give a lesser known title some spotlight.
Warhouse (1 soldier boy)
So... You find yourself in a house. You remember nothing from beforehand. You cannot leave. You are fed every day. And when an incorporeal bell strikes, you get attacked by one zombie-demon-like-creature-thing. And that's your day. Rinse, repeat. Over. And over. Only three humanoids are shown during the whole movie, never more than two on the same screen. This is an exceptionally daring project to put together. It will by no means be for everybody. It's deliberately slow, focuses not on monster fights, rather than the despair coming from the solitude and one's own inability to change one's fate. It can be a tough watch. The pacing demands a certain type of patience. But should you give it a try, you may find a well acted, well presented and deep experience.
It takes a special kind of skill to adequately present trapped people on edge. Personally, I'd love to see more appreciation for this type of story and hope this small rant helps spread the word a little. And we get stories about more places people can get stuck in.