American truck driver Paul Conroy is having what you might call a bad day. After taking a contract in Iraq delivering supplies, his convoy gets attacked and he blacks out. When he awakens, it’s a clear case of out-of-the-frying-pan-and-buried-in-a-coffin. At his immediate disposal are a lighter, a cell phone, and a limited supply of oxygen. He receives a message on the phone that he must use the phone to muster together a $5 million ransom or be left to die.
A brief synopsis, but one befitting of a film like this. Buried sounds like little more than a pitch film; selling itself solely on a gimmick. But when thinking of accusing the film of taking the easy road to getting greenlit, it is vital to remember that this man-in-a-box movie is precisely that: a man in a box. The simplicity of the concept is incredibly self-limiting and presents a challenge so seemingly insurmountable that Buried had a plethora of opportunities to fail. Fortunately for the audience, director Rodrigo Cortes and star Ryan Reynolds expertly navigated this minefield.
Buried is a fantastic, close-quarters horror film that explores a very basic, universal fear. There is a reason that premature burial stories pop up across cultures and centuries: we are all horrified by the idea. I do appreciate that the film favors exploration of this fear over its exploitation. This is an honest exercise in the macabre and never feels cheap or manipulative. While the concept is indeed minimalist, the creativity employed to bring dimension and variety to it with a very limited set of tools is remarkable. In many ways Buried is an experimental film that manages to rise above the stigma of monotony often inherent in experimental filmmaking. Buried is intense, horrifying, and masterfully suspenseful all without ever leaving the confines of the coffin.
When you have a film with one only one actor that takes place entirely in a singular, restricted space, any inanimate objects in that space take on new life. They become the other characters in the story as well as functioning as the obstacles. Gravity and the awkwardness of his prone position become the enemies of Paul’s escape as he struggles to hold the lighter in such a way as to let him see the phone numbers he’s written on the lid. On paper, this sounds like the definition of tedium. But that, coupled with a few unexpected, but wholly believable surprises, is at the heart of the expertly designed plot.
The cinematography in Buried is sensational…on the whole. The production designer built several versions of the wooden cell so as to allow for some unbelievably beautiful shots. I absolutely love the overhead shot as the sides of the coffin continue to extend upwards in a way that is only recognizable on our side of the fourth wall. It looks beautiful, but more importantly communicates the hopeless of the situation that makes this film so disturbing. Frankly, even the way in which seamless 360° pans are accomplished are impressive given the space. I did have a major issue with the quick-cut zooming in on his face as the score pounded a few desperately dramatic tones: are we shooting the film here, or the trailer?
Obviously a film like this falls flat on its face if improperly cast. As much as Ryan Reynolds has garnered a reputation for playing snide, cocky pretty boys; demanding little of his effort or craft, he knocks this performance out of the park. He is painfully authentic, vulnerable, and still manages to succeed at humor (though it is more akin to gallows humor). There were two things that especially stood out to me about his performance. The first is that his charm is what allows us to remain interested in and sympathetic to him the duration of the film, and that charm was cultivated by the same earlier roles that had some of us doubting this piece of casting. The second is that his character goes through all of the five stages of death in a way at various points throughout the movie that is subtle and perfectly executed to give a fascinating level of depth to that role.
It would be easy to make the assumption that a film like Buried is catered only to the hardcore horror geek cognoscenti, but the reality is that it could not be more of a mainstream crowd pleaser. In fact, I think the expectation of stagnation is what fuels the thrills when the film goes to ingenious lengths to keep things fresh. If you’ve ever found yourself anxious in a crowded room, overbooked flight, or congested elevator car, I would highly recommend participating in the universally claustrophobic nightmare, and undeniably entertaining, experience that is Buried.