“Going Nowhere Fast: films with limited surrounds and their impact on the story”
Some films are filled with familiar landmarks and skylines while others are filled with extravagant, exotic locations to the point that they almost seem like an ad for the travel company. Seriously— how many people booked trips to New Zealand after “Lord of the Rings” came out? It’s a shame that no one took a survey on that one, because I’m willing to bet the answer is “a lot.”
But some films take the opposite approach: they limit their actors to one, very limited location rather than have them race from place to place as if they were contestants in “The Amazing Race.”
In the 2010 film “Buried,” actor Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a U.S. truck driver that is working in Iraq during the war. One minute he’s on the road, the next, buried alive with only his cellphone and a lighter. What happens next is 95 minutes of intense “will he make it” plot work.
But why does this movie work? The actor barely even moves, let alone does very much; he’s buried in a flimsy coffin, underneath the sandy desert, with limited battery and cell service. Granted, he’s not lying around, playing “Angry Birds” while he’s waiting to be rescued—he’s just as tense as the audience is. He doesn’t know if he’s going to make it, any more than the audience does, and that is where the film finds its success: by drawing the audience in and making them feel what the character feels.
Make no mistake, there is no leaving this minimalistic theme: the camera stays buried along with the actor. The vast majority of the film doesn’t leave the coffin, which gives a similarly claustrophobic effect. There are no flattering angles to make the actor look good, there is no relief: there is nothing but that tiny little coffin, slowly filling up with sand. According to the film’s commentary, Reynolds himself started to suffer from claustrophobia towards the end of the shooting, so that panic and desperation that the audiences sees? Yeah, it’s real.
But perhaps “Buried” is a bit too exclusive. After all, how many films can take place in coffins, where the character is trapped and unable to interact with the outside world? Too bad “Twilight” wasn’t one of those, but a similar film would be “Cube.”
Described as being “kafkaseque,” “Cube” (1997) was a mysterious (and slightly horrific) science-fiction film about seven complete strangers who wake up one day only to find that they have been stuck inside a rubric cube-like maze. As they struggle to find an exit, they find a wide multitude of traps instead.
The entire film is 90 minutes of people going through one door, only to find that the next room looks exactly like the one they just left, and the only thing that changes is the color of the room. Well, that, and the possibility of the trap. But that is exactly what the filmmakers did: they built one cube structure and simply changed out the colored lights that illuminated the “room.” Whether or not they actually changed out the traps to threaten their actors and keep them motivated is left unknown.
Does a minimalistic film make a better film? It certainly allows the audience to connect better with the characters. If our scope is limited down to what the character is thinking and feeling only, then the theory stands that we will empathize with them more and will be susceptible to their stressors. Without the distraction of a crowd or flashy scenery, the only thing left to focus on is the moment. Whether that makes it a better film or not is up to you.