Written by: Chris Sparling
Directed by: Rodrigo Cortés
Starring: Ryan Reynolds
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“I need one million dollars by nine o'clock tonight or I'll be left to die in this coffin!”
Regardless of how claustrophobic you hold yourself to be, it’s hard to imagine many things more horrifying than being buried alive. The very idea brings forth the primal fears of helplessness and impending death. Hand in hand, those two fears make a natural fit for a gimmicky film that literally confines its star to one place. This is the impetus behind Buried, a thriller from Spanish film-maker Rodrigo Cortés that had a limited theatrical release earlier in the year and has just reached home video.
The film opens with complete silence and darkness before giving away to a desperate panting. A light flickers, and we find our protagonist, Paul Conroy, stuck in a coffin. He isn’t without some helpful supplies, however, as he’s got a zippo, a cell phone, and a pencil, among other supplies. The phone rings, and we begin to piece together our plot: Paul is a contractor in Iraq, and his convoy was ambushed by insurgents. Somehow, he survived and ended up buried underground by terrorists who now want a ransom for his life.
If anything, Buried lives up to its title, as the entire film does take place underground. There’s no attempt to cleverly get above ground; instead, the entirety of the film is conveyed through phone and video conversations, with Reynolds carrying most of the weight. Despite this, the film manages to be intense and riveting all the same, as it’s packed with edge-of-your-seat theatrics and some inventive, nerve-wracking scenarios. It would be commendable just to make an interesting film under these circumstances, but this manages to be very much engaging for 90 minutes. There’s very little downtime, as a sense of immediacy propels the film, and every minute detail becomes a source of anxiety, such as the phone’s battery life and signal strength. There’s also the fact oxygen is a precious commodity, so Paul’s only chance at salvation (contacting the outside world) comes at a price.
Much of the credit for the film’s effectiveness will rightfully be attributed to Reynolds. Known mostly as a Hollywood funnyman, he exhibits all the expected range of emotions here: angst, fear, agony, rage, etc. But there’s also some rather poignant moments sprinkled in, and they all carry the emotional weight that would come from someone who suspects they might be talking to a loved one for the last time. Though we’ve only just met Paul and have to rely on dialogue to piece together his life, he seems genuine and we hate to see him put through the wringer, both emotionally and physically. This is most important for the film’s frenzied climax, which almost feels like a small-scale version of Saw, right down to the self-mutilation.
Director Cortés can also shoulder his share of credit as well. Though the setup is minimalist, the film manages to be quite a dynamic experience thanks to some inventive camera and lighting work. Though the film is claustrophobic (and how could it not be?), the coffin at times feels cavernous, as if Cortés is creating an illusion of space that gives Paul just enough wriggle-room. This perhaps subtly gives a sense of hope, as we sense that maybe he’s not as confined as we think. Sound design is also an important factor in this regard, as we sometimes hear faint sounds in the distance that remind us of the world outside. There’s also plenty of jolts sprinkled in with the film’s unnerving silence--never has a vibrating phone sounded so diabolical.
It’s odd that these sort of outrageous-scenario thrillers often manage to be so effective. What are the odds that we’ll ever get stuck out in the middle of the ocean, on a chair-lift, or even in a grungy bathroom with a pair of hacksaws? All of us are as equally unlikely to be buried in a coffin in the middle of Iraq, but that doesn’t seem to matter. We’re still left to answer the same question: what would we do? And, as, often the case, there’s no real answer, as we can only hope for some luck and/or the help of others. Paul doesn’t get much help on the latter front; in fact, one of the film’s most excruciating scenes has him discovering that his “assistance” on the other end is anything but. This is one of a few scenes that adds a socio-political dimension to the film, which is pulled off well without being heavy-handed and actually manages to pose some interesting questions about the motives of “terrorists.”
This little sub-genre of films has seen a bit of a renaissance lately (in addition to the aforementioned examples, Danny Boyle has thrown his hat into the ring with 127 Hours), and Buried is about as effective as any of them. Lions Gate has unearthed this one on home video with a DVD/Blu-ray combo package, and the high-def offering is rather spectacular. The transfer shows off the film’s visual palette well, as the black levels are solid, and the sparse colors are lush. The 7.1 DTS-MA soundtrack is much more immersive than you’d expect and is key in capturing the film’s intensity. Special features include a making-of feature and several trailers for other Lions Gate releases. Buried is quite an intense experience, and it’s a cleverly constructed and heart-wrenching thriller that everyone should dig up and give a look. Buy it!
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