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Five Movies About Groups of People Trapped Together

A lot of movies owe a conceptual debt to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, and its most famous line “Hell is other people.” Nothing can get under your skin like someone who makes it impossible for you to ignore your own flaws and shortcomings.

Movies about groups of people trapped together in confusing and stressful situations can give us great insight into just how bad things can get.

The Method (2005) — IMDB.com rating 7.3/10 (8337 votes)

The Method tells the story of a group interview for an important job, against the backdrop of World Bank talks and mass protests. The protests outside the office building are unnecessary (the on-screen action does a fine job at the social commentary without the presence of the protestors), although they do provide a decent way to bookend the real questions the interviewees must grapple with.

The-Method-1

What will we do to strangers in order to reach our goal? What would we be willing to do to people we already know and perhaps love?

I liked this movie in part because the filmmakers weren’t afraid for their subjects to be superficially uniform, at least in physical appearance. In this type of film there’s sometimes a tendency to try to represent the broadest possible spectrum, which in the hands of some directors leads to overly simplistic (arguably stereotyped) characters. Even though the interviewees are all successful professional Spaniards, each represents both a distinct weakness and a distinct strength of those who inhabit the higher levels of the business world.

Exam (2009) — IMDB.com rating 6.9/10 (75839 votes)

Exam is a re-imagining of The Method, taking place in a room you almost expect to be part of the Cube. I suspect this was done to amplify the tension, but the setting simply puts too much distance between the characters and the audience. I felt more in tune with the interviewees who were speaking a language different from my own, in a country half a world away.

Exam

I don’t think that the room in Exam can be defended as a means of stripping away any cultural filters and letting us see how different people react in a completely neutral environment, because the characters here aren’t real enough to pull that off. The biggest problem I had with this movie is that the characters were distilled too far down; into a one-dimensional state. They each have a single personality trait that seems to inform everything they do. You might wonder how the characters will resolve the conflicts they have with one another, but none seems to have any internal struggle. Watch The Method instead.

Cube (1997) — IMDB.com rating 7.3/10 (166423 votes)

The act of trying to get a job might not be enough to drive a plot (even if it’s a really desirable job), but trying to save your own life certainly can be. Cube is likely to be one of those movies that either holds you with its ambiguity and makes you say “that was pretty cool” at the end, or that you won’t find entertaining in the least.

I was firmly of the first opinion. The story starts up without even a token background introduction or explanation (the later sequels certainly shouldn’t be considered… or even watched…). The story builds at an accelerating pace, and by the end you get some resolution, although not an explanation. The characters weren’t particularly well fleshed out, and the acting was a little overdone (at times it seemed like a Syfy original movie … not that that’s a bad thing!), but the uncertainty of their situation was more than enough to keep me interested.

Identity (2003) — IMDB.com rating 7.3/10 (183676 votes)

Sometimes the atmospherics in a movie are so thick that you just know you’re being set up. You might not know what’s going to be the
shocking twist at the end, but you’re pretty sure there’s going to be one. This is how it was with Identity. We’re told a story about a group of characters trapped at a deserted motel, and who are murdered one by one – Ten Little Indians style.

Identity-poster

Unfortunately, when the things I’m seeing on-screen feel so unreal, I find myself trying to figure out the twist and not watching how it happens. The plotting is so self-consciously clever, it’s almost distracting. When the big reveal happens, my reaction wasn’t “Oh My Gosh!!”, but “Ah. Ok. Sure, I guess.”

12 Angry Men (1957) — IMDB.com rating 8.9/10 (474530 votes)

I was surprised to learn that one of the greatest movies ever was adapted from a TV movie. The story – watching and listening to a jury deliberate – is so compelling because each of the (mostly unwilling) participants has a different level of emotional and intellectual involvement in the process. Some jurors take their duty very seriously, while others just want to be done with it so they can get on with their lives, while still others want to use their power as jurors to deal with their own demons.

Sure there’s a plot, and ostensibly we’re moving toward a resolution in the verdict. But we’re really most interested to see how these men are going to resolve the conflicts they have with each other, and with themselves. We want to see how they resolve the hell of being trapped with the other jurors. While we’re probably satisfied with the outcome of the fictional case in 12 Angry Men, we can’t help but wonder what happens in real life cases when there’s no one like Juror Number 8 on the panel.

*** BONUS ***

Five Characters in Search of an Exit (1961) — IMDB.com rating 8.7/10 (1251 votes)

It’s probably a bit of a stretch to include this episode of the Twilight Zone in a list of movies. But in many regards the 25 minute episode is the perfect length  for exploring the themes of this type of story. And it’s certainly at least a partial inspiration for all the other films on this list.

A ballerina, a soldier, a hobo, a clown and a bagpiper all find themselves trapped together in a small circular room.They have various theories on where they are and how they go there, and struggle towards an eventual escape. We ultimately learn their story, though it’s not clear that they ever do.

Here’s an example of where the surprise twist at the end works. Maybe it’s just a function of length, though. If there’s a surprise ending near the end of a 25 minute story I don’t feel as manipulated as I might when it comes near the end of a 90 or 100 minute story.

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About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.