5 chamber films to satisfy your thirst for small-scale drama
Peruse the list of highest-grossing films of 2014 and a few common threads are evident: four are comic book adaptations, seven are sequels, zero are The Monuments Men... the make-up of the top grossing list is almost as predictable as the films themselves. But the one thing that unites every one of them, without exception, is scale. Either in cast, budget or scope, each is more massive than the last, and with advances in modern filmmaking that places them amongst the most ambitious productions in cinema history.
Clearly, audiences love scale. They love to be transported across time and space, to reckon with all manner of weird and wonderful creatures, and to pay a lot of money for the privilege. Intricate human drama has now become the domain of the indie or foreign filmmaker, with budgets and box office results to match.
Enter the chamber film - low budget dramas with small casts, few locations and plenty of talking. Two high profile films bucked the bigger-is-better trend this year, and though they struggled to make waves commercially, both All is Lost and Locke managed to garner solid reviews despite taking place on Earth and not the Planet of the Apes. Like an exercise in constrained writing, the self-imposed limitations on films like these concentrate their effectiveness and result in a tighter connection between screen and audience.
Here, then, are five other chamber films that use small scale to their advantage.
Tape (dir. Richard Linklater, 2003)
Three former high school friends meet in a hotel room to reconcile the unresolved drama of an event that happened 10 years prior. Busily shot by a meddling Richard Linklater, brilliance shines through nonetheless as Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman work themselves into a vortex of anger, distrust and jealousy as they trace events through the haze of a decade of denial.
In a brisk 86 minutes Linklater explores the way communication can betray us, the difficult process of truly coming to terms with the actions of your younger self, and whether it's possible to really change.
Don's Plum (dir. R.D. Robb, 2001)
Famous primarily as the film that Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire had spirited away from theatres because it threatened their credibility as superstars on the rise, this verbose drama observes a group of impossibly self-aware young adults as they hang out at a diner and discuss their lives.
While its dialogue never quite reaches the insightful heights of Linklater or Whit Stillman, R.D. Robb's film occasionally hits veins of raw, pointed truth. Get past the hacky, contrived character-talks-to-self-in-mirror monologues and you'll discover a film that never deserved to be buried.
Secret Honor (dir. Robert Altman, 1984)
The mythologisation of an American president is no straightforward thing. A president's legacy is built upon more than just their political performance and legislative achievements; cultural and media representations, fair or unfair, have the power to change popular opinion of a president forever. "The man behind the president" is a common trope of politics in pop culture, an acknowledgement that the president we see in a press conferences and in the Oval Office is an obfuscation, a straw man served up to a public eager to receive their politics in easy-to-digest chunks.
Robert Altman's Secret Honor, based on the play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, plays with this idea as Richard Nixon sits alone in his library recounting the "real" story behind his political career into his famous tape recorder. Philip Baker Hall's tour-de-force performance paints Nixon as a wretched mouse of a man, prone to petulant outbursts as the manic, self-pitying former president rages against the political machine cursing foes real and imagined.
Face to Face (dir. Michael Rymer, 2011)
Michael Rymer's Face to Face is an overlooked Australian drama concerned with identity, discrimination and prejudice in the workplace, set in a mediation session for disgruntled construction worker Wayne (Luke Ford), and those affected by his violent actions. But all is not as it seems, with further interrogation of the circumstances of Wayne's outburst posing the question: just how poisonous can pre-conceived notions be?
The drama unfolds and expands as each attendee airs their grievances - each layer adding depth and uncertainty to the accepted series of events - and the technique of progressive disclosure results in a film as suspenseful and gripping as any thriller.
My Dinner with Andre (dir. Louis Malle, 1981)
Perhaps the greatest example of big things coming in small packages, My Dinner With Andre can literally be encapsulated in one sentence: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory dine in a restaurant and talk. But the scope of the film is enormous, as by talking to each other Wallace and Andre unlock and ruminate upon some of the most perplexing and challenging ideas ever to confront critical thinking humans.
Their free-flowing dialogue touches on the life, spirituality, travel, purpose, contentment, art, performance and more, and perhaps its most artful and delightful attribute is that the film itself is the best expression of some of its own core ideas.