Running time: 94 minutes. Rating: R for language and some violent content.
Directed by: Rodrigo Cortés Written by: Chris Sparling
Starring: Ryan Reynolds
Sometimes, one finds inspiration in the least likely of places. Indie filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes, looking for a way to recharge the modern thriller, discovers it in the dark, with Ryan Reynolds, a coffin and a cell phone. For 90 minutes without any external scenes or actors. It’s such an audacious move that all involved, from the director to his actor and then the camera crew, are inclined to work overtime to make it effective.
The result is that the space within the film expands to include an ever growing void of darkness and anxiety; it’s hard to be claustrophobic when Cortes sets up the edges of the frame as leading off into a vast nothingness. The unpredictability of Paul’s fate sets us off and running, trapped within a escalating spiral of suspense. For a film with so few props and contrivances, its unusually absorbing. Choosing a lead actor who can make us feel the situation deep down in our guts was probably the hardest job, but Cortes banks on Reynolds and is rewarded for his gamble.
Reynolds is there, the whole time within that coffin, and there are few scenes where we aren’t looking at him in some position or the other. He’s playing Paul Conroy, a contract truck driver in Iraq who wakes up in the dark and slowly realizes he’s been boxed up and buried under the ground. His captors have left him a cell phone, and want him to use it to negotiate a ransom. Like a good Hitchcock thriller, Conroy is racing the clock, trying to find a way oujt of this before the air he is breathing has all run out.
Without ever moving beyond the space of the coffin (although there are occasional POVs that seem to look down on the lid) Reynolds suggests the desperate struggle of a man trying to cling to his life in what are likely his last few hours. He talks to emergency rescue workers, politicians, and his wife. All of them are disembodied voices, being beamed across a great divide. For Paul’s purposes, they might as well be talking to him from the face of the moon.
Buried feels like a gimmick when you look at the posters, trailers, and promo materials. However, the experience of watching it is very different. It plays by the rules it has set for itself and keeps the picture focused squarely on Reynolds, who is provided an amazing range of movement and motion considering he’s trapped inside a wooden box with only minimal wiggle room. Sometimes, it’s as if one of the four walls holding him have fallen away and we are sharing a private moment of true, unyielding horror. The script structure allows us to learn Paul’s story and the status of his rescue, and a compelling dramatic tension is relayed via only the voices on the phone and Reynolds’ own facial expressions and body language.
Reynolds deserves special recognition for taking on this assignment and then building Paul Conroy into a plausible and compelling character, given the limitations of his situation. I’ve never been a huge fan of his work, but here he uses all of his acting skill to make Paul both sympathetic and dynamic even though technically he’s moved less than a few inches the whole film.
There’s the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe’s protagonists hanging over Paul, and like the doomed characters in ‘Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘Premature Burial’, he struggles valiantly against a horrific fate. In Paul’s case there is at least a glimmer of hope, and that glimmer keeps us on the edge of our seats. Not content to just put us in a pressure cooker, Cortes also layers in some humor, mostly had at the expense of those on the other end of Paul’s desperate calls. An unexpected bit of poignancy occurs when Paul finds himself talking to his young son, making the most of what might be final moments.
‘Buried’ works splendidly, in spite of it’s odd premise, and that’s because the filmmakers focus on the fact they are telling a story, not just pioneering a new camera technique or trying to violate movie convention to create a new kind of art. They aren’t concerned with delivering cheap thrills via the claustrophobic setting. Doing this takes Buried out of the realm of being an ‘exercise’ or ‘experiment’ and breaks down the artistic wall between the film and the viewers. As immediate and direct as that earliest of cinematic thrill-rides, The Great Train Robbery, Buried achieves a kind of movie-going perfection. We are there, in that box, with Paul, and the air is running out. By the end, when it’s all said and done, we finish up bewildered and a bit exhausted. Suddenly, we need an escape from our escapism.