The 10 Best Films Set in a Single Location

The 10 best films set in a single location

Most successful movies have a lot of moving parts.  The cast, the direction, the editing, the costumes, the visual effects; they are all extremely important.  However, the production design and set design are a big part of it. Would The Shape of Water be as successful without its gorgeous depiction of the laboratory and Elisa’s apartment?  Think about how effective sets and locations are when it comes to the Harry Potter franchise.  Some filmmakers, though, have the courage and talent to set their films in a single location.  Sometimes this comes from their financial limitations, but more often than not it is a creative choice.  There have been many of these types of films over the years and they are a difficult genre to pull off. If the actor is not engaging enough, it can be incredibly boring.  If the screenplay isn’t clever enough, it can feel like a gimmick. Here are ten of the best films set in a single location.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Considering this topic, 12 Angry Men is usually the first film people think of.  Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece is an exhibition of some of the best directing and acting you can imagine.  Henry Fonda leads the charge as the one dissenting juror in the murder case of a young boy who is accused of killing his father.  The other jurors, including E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, and Lee J. Cobb, all think the boy is guilty. The entire length of the film takes place in the jury room, as Fonda slowly convinces each of the other jurors of reasonable doubt.  Lumet does several things that make this film one of the most riveting movies of all time.  As the film progresses, the set gets smaller and more claustrophobic. Also, it all takes place on a hot summer night so all the men are sweating.  It all makes for an explosive atmosphere where you think these men will snap at any moment. This 1957 jewel of cinema has been remade many times since (notably 2007’s 12, a Russian interpretation) but none are as perfectly executed as Sidney Lumet’s.

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Phone Booth (2003)

Joel Schumacher has made a lot of nonsense throughout his career (Batman & Robin anyone?). But it is small little gems like Phone Booth that really show us that he can be a great, unique filmmaker as well.  The single location here is obviously the titular phone booth. Colin Farrell plays a adulterous man who calls his girlfriend every day from the same phone booth.  On this particular day, when he answers the ringing phone, the voice on the other end is a man. He threatens Farrell that if he hangs up or leaves the booth, he will be shot.  It is a lot of fun.  First of all, the voice on the other end of the line is instantly recognizable as Kiefer Sutherland.  His voice is inherently terrifying and he immediately brings gravitas to the scenario. The film progresses and a chess game of wits and stamina, because what can possibly come out of being stuck in a phone booth?  Well, one of the most thrilling films of 2003 is what you get.

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Exam (2009)

Few people know about his little gem of a movie, but it was floating around the Netflix ether for years.  The single location in this instance is a small room where 8 applicants are going through a very strange job interview.  The all are seated at a desk, with only a single sheet of paper and a pencil provided. They are all told by the intimidating Invigilator that there are three rules.  One, do not talk to him or the posted security guard.  Two, do not spoil your paper.  Three, do not leave the room.  That is all the applicants are told, and the “interview” promptly begins an 80-minute countdown.  What follows are a bunch of strangers trying desperately to learn what their “one question” is, and what exactly is expected of them.  Exam is full of equal parts puzzle-solving and paranoia.  This is a world where a job like they are being interviewed for can change their lives, and some of the group is willing to go further than others to get it.

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Carnage (2011)

Directed by Roman Polanski, this minimalist exercise is one of the greatest acting showcases in a long, long time.  Two boys have had a scuffle in the schoolyard ending with one if them striking the other across the face with a stick.  Carnage is about both pairs of parents meeting up to resolve the issue.  The single location in this case is the apartment of the victim’s parents, the Longstreets (Jodie Foster & John C. Reilly).  What starts out as a cordial understanding begins to spiral out of control.  Foster is the holier-than-thou hippie mother who irritates everyone. Reilly is the milqutoast who just wants everyone to get along.  Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz are the agressors parents. Winslet is at the end of her rope with her rambunctious son but is determined to do the right thing.  Waltz could not care less about the conversation and just wants to cut a check and leave. It has all the ingredients of an emotional battle royale and it most certainly becomes one.

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Pontypool (2009)

In a fresh take on the zombie genre, the entirely of Pontypool takes place in a radio station.  More specifically, within the DJ booth.  Stephen McHattie plays Grant Mazzy, a shock jock on-air in a small Ontario suburb.  He abandons his entertainment persona early on when caller after caller he is putting through are describing a strange outbreak in town.  The crew is having no luck on the news, so Mazzy decides to keep taking calls and try to understand what is happening.  The film is inspired by Orson Welles War of the World’s broadcast.  However, the occurrences in this film are real, and frightening.  The callers’ voices paint a horrifying picture in the audiences mind.  Also, the mysterious illness and how it infects makes the very air the station workers breathe suspicious.  It gets a bit schlocky toward the film’s climax, but McHattie’s performance and smooth dulcet tones sets the mood perfectly and really creeps you out.

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Buried (2010)

This is a very courageous film set in a single location, and probably the smallest single location.  The entire length of the film takes place within a pine box coffin.  Ryan Reynolds is Paul Conroy, a government contractor in the Middle East.  He has apparently been kidnapped and buried alive. All he has is a lighter, a pen, and an arabic cellphone in which he is contacted by his captors.  There is only a limited amount of battery life in the phone. More importantly, there is a limited amount of oxygen in the tomb.  Ryan Reynolds and director Rodrigo Cortes pull this experiment off perfectly.  Cortes finds all sorts of clever camera angles and perspectives and the audience really does feel trapped in that coffin with Paul.  Every breath, every bead of sweat, and every smudge of dirt will feel like it is happening to you. Ryan Reynolds, usually known for his comedic chops, resists the urge for any quips or levity.  This is a terrified, desperate man, and Reynolds sells it 100%.

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Cube (1997)

Made for less than $300,000, Cube is incredibly unique in that nobody knows the “why” of the film.  Director Vincenzo Natali expertly makes this film with a single room set, but by changing the lighting and the angles, it doesn’t feel that way.  A handful of strangers wake up in a futuristic-looking room with 6 portals in it. Each portal leads to another seemingly identical room, and so on and so forth.  Some adjacent rooms are safe. Others are filled with elaborate death traps.  This group is essentially locked inside a Hellraiser inspired Rubik’s Cube.  There is a way to figure out how to move to the next room, but it is extremely elaborate.  Just as the characters do not understand why they are in the situation, neither does the audience.  That is the film’s brilliance. There MUST be a reason but ignorance adds to the frustration and fear throughout the scenario.

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Unknown (2006)

This is not the 2011 Liam Neeson thriller of the same name.  This Unknown amnesiac thriller from 2006 whose entirely takes place in a single location.  This time around it all takes place in an abandoned warehouse. Five men have awakened in the warehouse with absolutely no memory of who they are and how they got there.  What they ARE able to deduce is that some of them are criminals and some of them are cops. What follows is a tense exercise where these men are desperately trying to figure out each other’s identity, as well as their own.  The cast is what makes this film worth your while.  Jim Caviezel wakes up first. Barry Pepper is severely wounded.  Greg Kinnear has a broken nose. Joe Pantoliano is tied up. Finally, Jeremy Sisto is handcuffed and shot.  The tension is almost unbearable as these men try to figure out who the heroes and who the villains are. When flashes of memory begin to creep back into some of their minds, the fireworks really start.

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Devil (2010)

Even the supernatural genre can get in on the single location idea, even though it does cheat a bit.  The story is by M. Night Shyamalan and it involves a group of people in an elevator. They are experiencing a demonic presence among them and one by one, they are somehow being killed off.  The cheat comes in the form of cuts to the security desk. The authorities are trying to follow what is happening within the elevator and figure out who the culprit is. Still, the focus is always on the inside of that elevator and its occupants.  It is very scary, very claustrophobic, and moves at a breakneck pace. Devil really gets your blood pumping and keeps you guessing all the way until the final reveal.

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Locke (2013)

The audacity this film took to make is extraordinary.  I guess when you have Tom Hardy as your star, you can pull off nearly anything.  The single location in question with Locke is Tom Hardy’s SUV.  He is Ivan Locke, a construction manager that have jumped into his car to fatefully drive many miles away for an emergency.  The entirely of the film involves Ivan making several calls through his speakerphone as he drives. It is a three-pronged screenplay.  First, his major construction project is at a critical stage, and he is ditching the site on the eve of a massively important step.  This is putting his job in jeopardy. Second, the reason he is abandoning the site is that his girlfriend is going into labor and he is rushing to be by her side.  Third, he is married.  So, having a girlfriend about to give birth is a problem.  Therefore, Ivan spends the film calling his coworkers, his wife, and his girlfriend, trying to do right by every single one of them.  It is astonishing how well this film works. It is absolutely brilliant.

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