Trend-spotting has become its own trend, and with good reason. The more cluttered our culture gets, the greater the need to find connecting threads that make some sense of the tangle. A trend is such a thread. Unfortunately, it's also close cousin to a coincidence, which, being a random happenstance, doesn't connect a damn thing but only adds to the confusion.
Now consider this: Three times in the past six months, the big screen has put the pinch on its leading man, dirtying up a pretty boy and squeezing him into the tightest of spots for much of the picture - Ryan Reynolds literally boxed up in Buried, James Franco pinned beneath a boulder in 127 Hours, Adrien Brody trapped in a smashed car in Wrecked. The entrapment scenarios are obviously similar, but, for the moment, let's just call them "recurrences" and speculate a little.
Hypothesis No. 1: Yippee, it's a trend-spotting red alert, the emergence of a brand-new genre. Call it the anti-action flick, a welcome reaction to, and shrinking away from, all those inflated blockbusters where hyperkinetic superheroes are capable of everything except sitting still for one precious second. Yes, the big bloat is out, the tight squeeze is in.
Hypothesis No. 2: It's a trend alright, but a far more practical sign of the economic times. Thinner wallets make for slimmer casts, and one guy in a really confined setting is the Slim Fast diet of moviemaking. Just look for a script where your lead actor co-stars with a rock, a coffin or a wrecked sedan, and production costs are bound to tumble.
Hypothesis No. 3: Sorry, there is no fresh trend. It's simply a continuation (coincidental or otherwise) of an old obsession. Entrapment yarns have a long history in literature and film, where freedom is always battling confinement, whether in an actual jail cell ( The Shawshank Redemption) or a single locked room ( The Collector) or a desert island ( Castaway) or merely behind the existential bars of our own imprisoned mind ( Waiting for Godot). This thread connects to the past, but says nothing of the present.
Okay, pick whichever of these hypotheses strike your fancy, or, better yet, devise another with more explanatory power. In the interim, it's interesting to do what these three movies all do themselves and zoom in for a close-up of the ensnared predicaments. Two of them are set in the outdoor wilderness - 127 Hours in the vast Utah canyons, Wrecked in a dense, dark forest - and, consequently, the trapped man is pitted against potent Mother Nature. Buried takes place in the urban wilds of Iraq, where the man is up against evil human nature - specifically, an American contractor versus the avaricious kidnapper who inters him.
Also, technology - the cellphone in particular - makes an appearance in all three predicaments, but to very different effect. Clearly, modern electronics are no match for Mother Nature: As Brody learns, and Franco verifies, these wireless things never work in the wild. By contrast, in Buried, the cellphone is human nature's evil accomplice. To aid his plan, the kidnapper sticks one in his victim's coffin, where it serves to develop the plot and promote plenty of black humour - frantically calling out, Reynolds keeps getting put on hold. Pocket-sized communicators may be our everyday lifeline, but, here, their rep is bad - they're villainous at worst and useless the rest of the time.
What else can these pictures teach us? Apparently, prolonged confinement is fertile ground for hallucinations, and, if you're a guy, the hallucination of choice is a pretty girl. Franco and Brody both indulge themselves. Reynolds is too rushed for such luxuries, but he does put in a call to a pretty ex-girlfriend who, not being hallucinated, seems unhappy to hear from him.
Of course, for directors of entrapment tales, fevered imaginings are a boon, an easy way to open up the film and escape its claustrophobic conceit. Yet there's a danger too. Overuse that escape valve, as Danny Boyle did in 127 Hours, and you end up defeating the emotion of the main story, fleeing from the suspense. More happily, the character's nightmare is a performer's dream, an extreme example of every screen actor's favourite mantra: Wait for the close-up and act with your eyes. There's nothing but close-ups in these movies, and the solitary stars all take full advantage - Brody, Franco, even Reynolds, their faces run the gamut from fear to anger to hope to despair and back again.
As for the audience, we also feel a bit wedged in here, caught between two opposing forces: gratitude for getting liberated from those mindless action flicks and impatience with the admittedly clever but static premise. There's an initial intrigue, followed by sustained interest, but the third act brings a residue of mild disappointment, like playing a parlour game a little too long.
The games' various endings merit a final mention. In each of his tilts against Mother Nature, man fares pretty well - in the true story of 127 Hours, victory comes at the cost of an arm; in the fiction of Wrecked, the price is even less. But human nature, in Buried, proves to be an unbeatable demon - there's no escaping it because, in Iraq or anywhere else, there's no exit strategy. Maybe that's a coincidence, but, sadly, I fear it's a trend.