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‘Escape Room’ and the Uneasy Thrill of Movies About Trapped People in Small Spaces

If there’s a “room” in the film title, chances are that unfortunate characters are trying to break free of it

Sony/Ringer illustration

Perhaps the best way to start this is with a question, and I’ll tell you right now that I don’t necessarily have the answer: What is it about movies that are about people trapped in rooms that makes them so interesting, compelling, and engaging? I ask because this past weekend, a new movie called Escape Room came out. Without revealing too much of it (because it’s a fun movie and a good way to spend 100 minutes and so you should go see it), the premise of it is as such: A group of people connected in a very specific way are placed into a room (or, more accurately, a series of rooms) and have to figure out how to get out. If they cannot figure it out then they die.

Did you ever see 2015’s Green Room? (My guess would be no, what with it having made less than $4 million at the box office.) In it, a young punk rock band gets booked to play a daytime gig at a neo-Nazi hangout in Portland. After the show, a band member named Pat (played by the late Anton Yelchin) pops into the club’s green room to retrieve a bandmate’s phone. When he walks in, he sees that someone has stabbed a young woman to death. He immediately tries to call the police, but one of the club’s employees snatches away the phone and then forces the rest of the band into the room with the body while the neo-Nazis figure out what to do. At the suggestion of their leader (Darcy, played by Patrick Stewart) the neo-Nazis eventually decide that they’re going to kill everyone in the band and make it look like they were trespassing on private property. The band members are able to sniff out that terribleness is all that awaits them outside of the room, so they attack the person who was supposed to be watching them, then barricade themselves in and try to figure out how to get out. (Green Room ends up being an extremely gnarly movie. It’s on Netflix right now. Of the four movies with “room” in the title that I’m talking about in this article, it’s the best one, and if it’s not the best one, it’s definitely the goriest, which is surprising given that there’s a part in Escape Room where six people almost get cooked alive.)

Did you ever see Room? Like Green Room, it also came out in 2016, but unlike Green Room, it was a big success. (In addition to making more than nine times as much money as Green Room, it was nominated for four Oscars—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Brie Larson, the movie’s star, won Best Actress.) In it, a mother and her son are held hostage in a shed for years and years. At first, the mother tells her son that the only part of the world that exists is their room, but (of course) eventually he comes to learn that that is not the case.

And let me take a moment right here to say: One part of fatherhood that I had not initially anticipated but have since come to get used to is how hard it is now to watch movies where children are placed in difficult settings. Whether it’s a common situation (like, say, a movie where children are growing up in extreme poverty like 2017’s The Florida Project) or an uncommon one (like, say, a movie where children are growing up a few years in the future where the earth is ruled by blind monsters who attack anything that makes a sound like 2018’s A Quiet Place), it’s hard just the same. And after a few years of watching movies with this sort of new default setting in my brain, I figured that it’d only apply to small children. In Room, for example, the little boy is roughly the same age as my youngest son, and so when I watched it, I couldn’t help but picture him as the kid. What has ended up happening, though, is the age ruler in my head has a sliding scale. Like, when all my kids were very young, I could watch a movie about, say, some teenagers getting wrecked and it would not bother me at all. But now that my two oldest sons are 11, I’m starting to picture them in movies about teens (and even early 20-somethings). It super sucks. I’m maybe four or five years away from never being able to enjoy any kind of movie that isn’t about, like, some very old men teaming up to rob a bank or whatever. At any rate …

Did you ever see 2002’s Panic Room? It starred Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart as a mother and teenage daughter living in a gigantic new home, and it also starred Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and country singer Dwight Yoakam as burglars who want a bunch of money that Foster and Stewart do not know is hidden in the home. (Dwight Yoakam popping up as a masked burglar named Raoul is my second favorite “Oh fuck, I forgot you were in this” Yoakam moment, losing out only to his surprise role as the skeezy doctor in 2006’s Crank.) In Panic Room, Foster and Stewart retreat to the safety of a panic room during the home invasion, only to realize later that the money that the burglars are trying to get is hidden inside there.

I rewatched Panic Room—along with Green Room and Room—in the days leading up to the release of Escape Room, because I knew I was going to see it, and also because I (tend to) love movies with this premise. (Basically the entire Saw franchise is a version of it, but especially Saw II. Any bank robbery movie where the robbers get trapped inside is a version of it. The Cube franchise is another good example. The Killing Room is another good example, though I’m not certain it’s a good movie. Same with Devil and The Belko Experiment. There are a bunch, is the point.)

Part of it is the voyeurism, for sure: getting to watch people placed in unenviable situations and seeing how they react. (I can tell you with certainty that I would not have made it out of Escape Room, Room, Panic Room, or Green Room alive.) Seeing unexpected heroism is fun, as is watching someone reveal themselves to be evil (like [REDACTED]’s character in Escape Room) or dumb (like Jared Leto’s character in Panic Room, and right now seems like a good time to mention that he has cornrows in Panic Room, which is somehow both delightful and horrible all at once) or brilliant (like Brie Larson’s character in Room) or hopeless (like Anton Yelchin’s character in Green Room when he first gets [REDACTED]).

And of course there is a very specific kind of existential fulfillment that comes with watching a movie where the very nature of it is an obvious problem that will require an unobvious kind of solution.

But what else is there about it? What’s really the draw? What’s really the thing at the center of it? What does it say about the human condition that we enjoy looking at people work through that kind of thing for 100 minutes? Is it the rush that comes from your body realizing that the surge of claustrophobic panic you’re experiencing is manageable because you’re not the one who’s actually trapped? Is it the (usually) unearned confidence you allow yourself in silently declaring that you’d for sure, no doubt, no question, be the one who was smart enough to escape? I don’t know. So I’m going to end this the same way I started it. By asking a question: What is it about movies that are about people trapped in rooms that makes them so interesting, compelling, and engaging? It’s something obvious, I’m sure, but also something unobvious, I’m sure, too.