I had never heard of the movie until I saw it in Redbox. To be honest, I didn’t even read the caption for it. I just saw the reviews on the front cover saying things like “Mesmerizing” and “Brilliant” so I bucked conventional wisdom and completely judged this movie by it’s cover. Let’s just say I’m glad I did…
*Spoiler Alert – The rest of this review will completely ruin the movie for you, so enter at your own risk.
The movie begins with pure blackness, long enough to make me think the DVD froze. …and then you start to hear some noises. Banging, shuffling, heavy breathing, and eventually the clinking sound of a Zippo and you find yourself all up in this dude’s personal space. It’s cramped, awkward, and pretty dang frustrating not knowing what’s going on. We don’t know why, when, where, or how. All we know is that we seem to be buried alive inside a wooden box.
From there the story unfolds more or less in real time, and the timing of it all is impeccable. Both the actor and especially the editor did a phenomenal job of letting the audience stop and think along with him. He was never given hero status by quickly coming to a solution or knowing exactly what to do. It was a linear, real time story and that made it all the more believable.
For the first 20 minutes or so I kept waiting for some sort of flashback, something to take the story outside of this coffin and into the wide world of cinema, but that never happened. The entire film took place inside a box. A cramped, dark box. The idea is almost too simple for me to wrap my mind around. How could one possibly film a compelling story without ever leaving a six foot box? Surely there would be some reason to take the audience out. I desperately wanted a glimpse of something else, but they never gave it to me. Honestly I think that is the most brilliant thing about the film. By keeping the audience trapped inside the box with him, I got pulled into the depravity of the situation. I found my mental response shifting from, “Okay this is just a movie,” to “Enough already! We need to get out of here now!”
Given that the entire film only showed a single character the acting had to be dead on, and Ryan Reynolds nailed it. His performance was very convincing.
There were times when I questioned the dialog, but the more I think about it the more I realize that it’s mostly just a difference of opinion and survival skills. This led to times where I was nearly shouting at the screen saying, “Seriously dude, tell them this…” Come to think of it, most of the conversations he had on the phone made me angry. …but I’m realizing now that perhaps that was the point all along –to get me to feel what he’s feeling.
Alone, confused, angry, helpless. I definitely felt all of those emotions during the film. I can’t think of another movie where I have been able to relate to a character so much without having been in the same situation myself. (That kind of blows my mind, by the way.)
No doubt they ran into a lot of obstacles while filming because there are only so many ways you can entertain an audience inside a box, but they employed some brilliant camera angles to keep us engaged and to propel the story. I was also really impressed with the lighting. Most scenes appear to be lit by only a lighter, cell phone, flash light, or glow stick. A few scenes appear to have some subtle additional fill light, but it is all blended very well. The did a great job leveraging the color temperature of each light source, giving a subtle change in mood with the different color tones.
The soundtrack was another strong point of the film. There were definitely moments that completely lacked music, but it was obviously done on purpose and aided the story. The music never took over the scene, but it played as a great supporting role in an otherwise one-man film.
There are two things about the movie that are horribly out of place. The first being the snake scene. They worked hard to make everything believable up until that point, and then they smashed your sense of reality. They might as well have had a baby unicorn pop out of his pants. Even though it was a good dramatic change of pace they would have been much better off showing the snake entering the coffin rather than just somehow appearing in his pants without him noticing.
The other awful part was the song selection during the credits. The whole movie was one rough emotional rollercoaster and then those feelings come to a screeching halt before they have a chance to sink in. There is no way this song selection was happenstance and I would love to hear a good reason why it made it in the final film. For me, it killed the mood and I quickly reached for the mute button.
Aspiring filmmakers can learn a lot from this movie. For starters, the whole thing is filmed inside a box; this practically makes the set of Phone Booth look like the expanse of Middle Earth. You’re probably not gonna need a big budget to pull it off, and you don’t have to spend much time lighting the scenes. More importantly though they stripped away all of the unnecessary elements of filmmaking until they were left with the very core of storytelling: A character with a purpose and plenty of conflict. This movie proved that if you focus on those things then you don’t need all the other stuff. Find a simple story and show it well. Done.
In conclusion it’s a brilliant, creative, and thought provoking film. It’s one of the most interesting and dynamic films I’ve ever seen. By dynamic I mean that it will mean different things to different people. What you get out of it will be different than what I did. It doesn’t attempt to answer any questions, nor leave you with any particular thought. It’s a simple, fascinating story that left me wanting more and nothing else at the same time.