In the past decade, it has become an increasingly rare occurrence for a film director’s ambition to exceed the capabilities of the medium. CGI has developed so rapidly that it is now possible to render convincingly entire planets onscreen, and visual limitations are still continuously being eroded. Yet one only need look at ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ or the blunderingly moronic ‘Avatar’ to see that flawless digital effects do not equate to a good movie – more often than not they will take detract from an original story or interesting characters. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that with ‘Buried’, director Rodrigo Cortés has proved that limitations – both geographical and budgetary – can be an extremely good thing.
The pitch of the film is extraordinarily, deceptively simple: Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up in a coffin, buried alive, with a mobile phone and little else for company. For ninety-four minutes, the camera remains with him inside this cramped wooden box as he tries to figure out who put him there and, more importantly, how to get out. Indeed, so simple is this concept that it is somewhat surprising that no filmmaker has attempted it before, and Cortés himself has spoken of how he couldn’t believe his luck when he was handed the script; in particular it seems tailor-made for Hitchcock, stretching the audacities of ‘Lifeboat’ or ‘Rear Window’ as far as possible. Then again, it is difficult to conceive of a greater challenge for a director, limited as the film is by the dimensions of a coffin.
It is to the great credit of Cortes that not only does the film maintain a grippingly dramatic narrative, but it also manages to be hugely inventive; the camera is continually spinning, zooming, moving to ensure an unceasing visual kineticism, the colour palette is impressively varied thanks to the presence of different sources of light, and the sound design regularly amps up the tension with occasional ominous creaks from the fragile wood. Surrounded by all this, Reynolds is onscreen the entire time, and as such, the film succeeds or fails on his performance. Fortunately, his ferociously intense and naturalistic acting ensures that the audience shares his panicked claustrophobia to a thoroughly uncomfortable degree.
The notion of being buried alive may be a familiar one, explored by everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to Quentin Tarantino, yet here it feels utterly fresh. Together, Cortés and Reynolds reinvigorate the concept, unleashing the full primal horror and panic that it entails while also exploring effectively themes of technology and bureaucracy. ‘Buried’ is by no means an easy watch, taking as it does the terrifying claustrophobia of ‘The Descent’ to the extreme, yet it is also utterly thrilling and moving, leaving its viewers drained of emotion and energy. There is unlikely to be a more original and forcibly immersive film this year than this minor taphophobic masterpiece.
Buried has a simple concept: a man, Paul Conroy, is trapped in a box underground and being held to ransom for $ 5 million. Not much else to it, right? Well, it is a credit to both leading and only on screen actor Ryan Reynolds and director Rodrigo Cortés that they manage to make something this simple one of the tensest films released in months.
The film starts off with an incredibly ‘Hitchcockian’ feel: the use of music, the every day man trapped in a situation that he didn’t cause; surrounded, in this case using a phone, by people and none of them can help you. Cortés borrows a lot from the master of tension and it makes the first half of the film un-missable. Add to it the close camera angles, face shots and occasional submersion into darkness and each member of the audience is taken into that claustrophobic box. Then, just as quickly, the cameras will pan out and surrounding the coffin is blackness and a sense of complete hopelessness. Cortés plays with the audiences’ emotions very effectively.
Being the only person on screen, Reynolds has a tough job of carrying the whole 94 minutes, but he does it superbly and is excellent to watch, for the most part. Conroy goes through a whole spectrum of emotion from anger, to despair, to acceptance, to hope and everything in between with Reynolds demonstrating them all superbly. However, he is not alone for the entire film as there are plenty of voices on the other end of the telephone. Some of the voice acting was excellent, such as Robert Paterson as Agent Dan Brenner, while others felt a little clichéd, such as Jose Luis Garcia Perez as the Iraqi kidnapper. Reynolds admitted himself that this was likely the toughest shoot he has ever done. He left the set after 17 days of being buried with splinters all over his body, singed fingers and heavy asthma; it all seems a very long way from Van Wilder.
The film, however, is not perfect and suffers from not quite believing enough in itself. After about half way through someone seems to have felt the audience might be getting a bit bored and decided to crank up the tension factor, using some very obvious cinematic ploys. Some of these ploys work and keep the audience on edge, but some don’t, only serving to accidentally break up the tension. Sadly, the film never really recovers from these blunders, and it is a real shame that no one felt the situation would be tense enough without having to force further jeopardy upon it.
That being said, this remains a very good film with a great concept, though one which unfortunately couldn’t be maintained throughout the entire film. If ‘Buried’ had been made 20 minutes shorter, all the cheap thrills could have cut out, leaving the audience more on edge and making the film better for it.