Category Archives: Theme Lists

The “Locked Room” Gambit

(Otherwise known as “Who am I, and How Did I Get in this Handbasket?”)

These movies belong to a subset of the “puzzle” movie. They typically involve a bunch of people waking up in some kind of enclosed space from which they can’t easily escape, unable to explain how they got there, why they are there, what they need to do, or even who they happen to be.

(This kind of setup also sometimes occurs within the context of a larger movie, such as the Saw entries I’ve included here: The “locked room” puzzle is just part of an even larger puzzle that other characters are trying to solve.)

The fun of course comes into trying to solve the mystery before the characters do. Whether the fun continues as the move progresses depends on how “fair” the writer has made the mystery, so that the viewer might have a chance to unravel it.

Cube

The protagonists each awake in a cube-shaped chamber, with square doors on all six surfaces. The cubes can be of different colors. Some of the rooms contain death traps, all of which seem devised to be as sadistic as possible. As the characters move from room to room and join forces, they must find a way to escape the large trap of the Cube while simultaneously determining which of the smaller cubes are safe to traverse. This movie has spawned a few sequels.

Exam

Eight final candidates for an unidentified job position filter into a windowless room and are handed nothing but a piece of paper and a pencil. They are given instructions on what and what not to do, told they will be asked a simple question, then are left to their own devices. Candidates are removed from the room when the rules are broken; only one candidate (if any) can be offered the job.

Nine Dead

Nine people awake in a basement, chained so that they cannot escape or reach each other. A masked gunman informs them that one of them will die every ten minutes, unless they can figure out exactly how they are each related. This movie thus differs from the others in that it’s not an elimination game, and in fact cooperation is not just encouraged but mandated; there is no way to solve the riddle unless they communicate clearly with each other, and if they don’t solve the riddle of their connection, none will escape alive.

Unknown

Five characters awake in room in a sealed warehouse. Two characters are free; the rest are fettered in some way (rope, handcuffs, etc). Some of them are wounded; all have been drugged so that even their personal memories are temporarily lacking.

This movie differs from the other in that (1) the production quality is decent, rather than shoestring, and (2) it stars a number of established mainstream actors, including Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”), Greg Kinnear (“As Good as It Gets”), Joe Pantoliano (“The Matrix”), Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”), Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”), and Peter Stormare (“Fargo”). 

Saw II

Eight strangers (one a boy named Daniel) wake up in the basement of a house filled with nerve toxin that will kill everyone if they do not escape within two hours. They are told that each of them possesses part of the solution and then left to their own devices.

While this riddle occupies much of the movie, it is housed within a larger puzzle, where police inspector Matthews is being shown a feed of what is occurring within the house, yet promised that his son Daniel will be safely reunited with him if he resists his urge to save them and instead sits out the game with Jigsaw.

Saw V

In this case, the main puzzle revolves around the plight of five strangers who awaken in a sewer death trap and undergo a series of fatal puzzles, their numbers dwindling along the way.  While they do solve each room in turn, not every solution might be for the best.

Clue

A non-traditional entry in the genre, due to its comedic tone, but it fits the criteria. Six guests (named after the infamous playing pieces of “Clue”) are invited to dinner; a body is found; the butler locks the house the mansion until the killer can be pinpointed; the remainder of the movie is about the characters trying to determine how each is connected to the stiff and, finally, “Who Dun It.”

Three different endings were filmed and shown randomly during the theater release; the home release version includes all three endings in the viewing.

[to be continued if more come to light]

Depressing Movies Still Worth Seeing

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”  ― Charles Dickens, “Great Expectations”
 
People watch movies to be entertained, and there’s value in that. Some movies walk a darker road, but still offer up a happier ending by which to balance the scales. And then there are movies with other purposes in mind, the ones that leave you speechless and pensive after.

Interestingly, many of them revolve around people who are trapped by themselves, others, or even fate and are forced to either extricate themelves or reconcile themselves with dignity to their destiny as best they can. They sacrifice comfortable resolutions for honesty, maintaining the tone necessary to instigate thoughtfulness and provide the impetus we need to perceive, question, and perhaps change our own lives.

Never Let Me Go (2010)

The movie focuses on the lives of children born and raised by the state specifically as commodities when they come of age. I won’t spoiler it by saying what specific purpose they serve, just that it’s only the premise (not the day-to-day narrative) that has sci-fi overtones. The story itself explores the unfolding drama of three young people coming to terms with a destiny decided for them before their births.

The film features sensitive, nuanced performances by Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, as well as the young actors who portray them as children. What makes a person a person and a soul a soul; and what makes one life more important than another, if death remains an inevitability anyway?

Like Crazy (2011)

Love “American-style” is often portrayed as enthusiastic, young, strong, powerful; what is often overlooked is the fragility of love when it is not properly maintained. This movie explores in a very raw way (with much of the dialogue being ad libbed) the process by which a promising relationship might falter and lose its way without the right kind of care. The strong performance by the leads is almost overshadowed by Jennifer Lawrence in the supporting cast.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

It’s not really an accident that two films in my list are based on books by the same author (Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote, “Never Let Me Go”). Nominated for eight Academy Awards, The Remains of the Day focuses on a butler who cannot reconcile his professional ideals with his personal life. The severity of his commitment to dignity threatens to strangle the enticing vulnerability for love. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are in top form here; Christopher Reeve performs decently in one of his last movie roles.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Darren Aronofsky directed this relentless drama about four addicts whose lives spiral out of control as their pleasurable highs become ever-demanding barbed hooks that they cannot remove from their own mouths. Ellen Burstyn won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a widow who becomes hooked on prescription medicine in order to lose weight.

The Wrestler (2008)

Another Aronofsky movie, an over-the-hill professional wrestler tries to reclaim his glory days, find love, and rebuild a relationship with a daughter he barely knows. It’s rightfully touted as Mickey Rourke’s “comeback” movie (I can’t imagine a better performance), with uneasy parallels between this and his own fall from grace.

Gone, Baby, Gone (2007)

Ben Affleck’s first directorial outing stunned critics and revitalized his entertainment career. It’s also a great example of a movie that outshines its source material (a noir-style book by Dennis LeHane).

A young girl in Boston disappears; it’s up to the detective team of Kenzie and Gennaro (here played by Ben’s brother Casey and actor Michelle Monaghan) to find her, alive or dead. What they discover over the course of the investigation wanders into moral ambiguity and no flawless solution. Decisions are made, and the movie lingers unsettlingly on the outcome without trying to justify which decisions were better.