Oxygen is an Airtight Thriller
If you’ve seen Buried, you might flip on Oxygen - Alexandre Aja’s latest thriller-in-a-box for Netflix - just to see how it can possibly be different. You won’t be disappointed. Aja innovates from within, exploring his self-imposed crawl-space to mine quirks, surprises, and delights from both narrative and character.
If Buried is a vehicle for what Ryan Reynolds can do in a small space, Oxygen is meant to show off everything Aja can create with limitations - effectively designed to earn the French genre director a sizable budget to play with for his next film. And Aja delivers. Following the journey of a woman who wakes up trapped in a coffin-like medical cryo unit with limited memory, Oxygen is a dizzying experience. Aja’s camera swoops and spins right alongside the woman, played with alternating restrained tension and unleashed angst by Mélanie Laurent, shifting between empathy (and nausea) inducing close-ups and a more psychologically removed POV. Aja’s style turns Oxygen into both a sharp, puzzling thriller and a jittery, terrifying journey of self-discovery.
Laurent anchors the film, as she must with such a premise. Sliding assuredly between confusion, terror, and determination, she refuses the easy over-reliance on facial acting given that could come with restraints on mobility. Instead, Laurent pushes and pulls against her confinement, contorting her body around her 7’ x 2’ x 2’ habitat. She makes you feel anxious with her; gaslit with her; trapped with her.
Oxygen does risk running out of steam a few times, as is natural with the confinement-based plot, but it invents a series of ingenious swerves that offer visual and narrative spice, allowing it to avoid abusing flashbacks. It still uses them, of course - I’m still awaiting the “100 minutes in a box” movie where the camera is as trapped as the protagonist - but the flashbacks are sparse and more specifically utilized than one might have expected. And when it does stray from its casket, Oxygen identifies the personal within the universal. In one shot in particular, Aja miraculously morphs the corporeal center of fear, the eye, into one of humanity’s greatest phobias - that of the unknown.
I won’t share more. Oxygen is a journey from which you’d rather not take a rest stop, and one that’s best left in the shadows before embarking. Take a deep breath and dive in. You won’t regret it.