Matt at the Movies: Two in the “Chamber”
Matt gives Women Talking 7/10, and Knock at the Cabin 8/10
Chamber movies have been a Hollywood standard for decades. Many were scripted plays that when adapted, kept the real time action, single setting, and small cast, likely for budgetary reasons.
Many critics would be quick to mention the standard was set in ‘57 with Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece 12 Angry Men. Though not the first, it was popularized as a storytelling device by Ingmar Bergman in the 1960’s.
The key to this genre is the suspense of moral and ethical decisions to be made with a clock - literal or subconscious - ticking. The pressure cooker-effect provides an extra layer of excitement or dread.
When done well, this genre is a visceral cinematic experience. When poorly executed, it can leave viewers wanting more as they anticipate a payoff that never arrives.
Alfred Hitchcock (Rope/Rear Window) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs/The Hateful Eight) both used chamber movies and the confines of a single room to draw out anxiety, suspicions, and the ugly side of humanity. As mentioned in one of the two films to be reviewed today, a great chef can tell if you have what it takes by executing a simple egg dish perfectly. I feel the same can be said about a great storyteller and a chamber movie.
Before we look at this week’s films, I’ve compiled a list of my top five chamber movies from 1990 onward. All five featured a small cast in a single location, and each gave me some combination of excitement, comic relief, moral quandary, and even nightmares.
Matt at the Movies Top Five Chamber Movies Since 1990:
5) Carnage (2011) - Adapted from the Tony Award winning play, this film features a heavyweight cast of John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz. This dark comedy is a meeting of Brooklyn parents whose children have recently been involved in a school yard brawl. As the story plays out your start to see why each child's choices don’t stray far from their progeny.
4) Cube (1997) - This Canadian sci-fi/horror puzzler takes place in an ever changing cubicle prison with five strangers. There are clues, booby traps, and deceit at every turn as they piece together how to escape. Survival and instincts take over as the group try to solve the mystery before they all perish.
3) Misery (1990) - Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her psychotic performance as a sociopathic nurse in this Stephen King adaptation. Bates takes care of James Caan’s character, an acclaimed author who was seriously injured in a crash. As Caan is on the mend, he finds out that Bates is a deranged superfan who will take any measures possible to force him to pen his new novel.
2) Ex Machina (2015) - Alex Garland makes his directorial debut at a remote billionaire tech giant's compound where he invites one of his employees to visit to conduct a Turning test on his latest project. Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleason, is a programmer within the company who is tasked with determining if Ava (Alicia Vikander) has artificial intelligence. Oscar Isaac whose Nathan portrays an amalgamation of Musk/Bezos/Zuckerberg seems determined to break any ethical or moral principles to be the first to breakthrough with his new discovery. By the end we wonder who is playing whom and the implications of if this new technology is released to the world.
1) Reservoir Dogs (1992) - Tarantino broke onto the scene with a Sundance Festival-winning film featuring Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi and Michael Madsen. Roth’s character stars as a cop who infiltrates a gangster outfit as they carry out a botched diamond heist. At their rendezvous point each of the surviving characters question who’s the rat and how to snuff him out. Tarantino sets the stage for a career filled with crass biting dialogue, extreme violence, and a pop culture infused story to your veins with his first full-length flick.
This week we have two new compelling films that are chamber stories. Each features big picture themes, strong casts, and heavy moral decisions. One is based on a true account, and the other from an apocalyptic event that borders on religious zealotry (though we are left wondering). Time looms as the biggest enemy to each. Today we review Women Talking and Knock at the Cabin.
Women Talking (currently playing at the Independent) is director Sarah Polley’s new Oscar nominated best picture film. It was adapted from the 2018 best seller of the same name from author Miriam Toews and features a mostly female cast (Ben Wishaw withstanding). Both the book and movie deal with the decision of what to do as many of the women in this Mennonite colony have been raped in their sleep over the past several years.The results are have caused physical, psychological, and faith trauma to the women. The men of the colony have all left to bail out a captured assailant and a small council of women have less than forty-eight hours to decide what they will do. Should they leave and take their children with them? Should they stay and fight literally against these atrocities? Should they accept this and forgive so they can retain their passage into the gates of heaven? The clock ticks.
Knock at the Cabin, the newest from the master of twists M. Night Shyamalan based off the book The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul G. Tremblay. Set in rural Pennsylvania, it features a couple and their young adopted daughter off on a weekend retreat. We see a massively imposing figure Leonard (played wonderfully by Dave Bautista) approach young Wen in the woods as he introduces himself. Eventually, he is joined by three other accomplices holding archaic man-made weapons as they approach the cabin. Leonard knocks as the scared family secures the cabin from intrusion. Leonard calmly and succinctly informs the family that the four of them are strangers assembled by visions of an oncoming apocalypse. The family must make the choice to sacrifice one of themselves by the hand of each other or unleash four plagues that will destroy humanity. With each denial one will be sacrificed and a plague will be set forth on earth. The clock ticks.
Women Talking feels like a slow burn as the women in various states of anger, grief, and denial mull over their choices in the barn's hayloft. Lone male teacher August is there to keep record and hold a vote for their decision. Elders and young alike are given equal say in what type of future they want to live in. Have chains of patriarchy and religion have enslaved them to where they no longer have agency? Where could they even go and what would happen to their children? This star studded cast (Roony Mara, Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, and Sheila McCarthy) portrays anger, resentment, hate, love, cynicism, hopefulness, and wonder in how much their faith guides the colony of women towards a decision.
Things are not as clear cut in Knock at the Cabin as these four seemingly random (are they?) strangers descend upon the family with only biblical four horsemen visions, urgency of their lives at stake, and complete certainty of earth’s outcome if sacrifices are not made. To see average people including a second grade teacher, line cook chef, RN, and blue collar worker show complete conviction to this insane premise makes you wonder if they were touched by a higher power or part of an online fanatic conspiracy group. Fathers Eric (played by Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) refuse to take part in this sick game until the first sacrifice coincides exactly as it was foretold by Leonard on the television. What choice will they make for their family and the world’s future?
I felt that both of these films achieved their vision in creating tension while staying true to the source material. Same may disagree with the ending of Knock at the Cabin or believe that things played out too slow in Women Talking. What you cannot say is that each filmmaker did a disservice to the story to keep us waiting until the end, which is a great hallmark of any chamber movie. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
Stars of the show: Clair Foy was a force as Salome who was clearly in the fight or flight camp. She and Buckley offset each other to create a dynamic of how the colony would vote. On the other end this was the best usage of Dave Bautista I’ve ever watched. His massive stature and gentle approach as Leonard the second grade teacher from Chicago showed that he is much more than a Marvel movie heavy.
Don’t Sleep On: Director Sarah Polley whose early career as a successful actress has translated to her work behind the lens. I personally loved 2011’s Take this Waltz starring Michelle Williams but Women Talking has her as a premier young director in Hollywood.
MatM Scores: Women Talking: 7/10, Knock at the Cabin 8/10