Much like found-footage movies, movies that focus on characters trapped in small spaces have proliferated over the last decade or so. There’s a collection of filmmakers who seem to be challenging each other to whittle the drama down into ever-smaller locations, whether it happens to be the inside of a tank
, an elevator
, a ski lift
, or a phone booth
. With Buried
, though, director Rodrigo Cortes
and writer Chris Sparling
have crafted a film that takes the sub-genre to what feels like a natural conclusion. Films like this will continue to be made, no doubt, but it’s tough to imagine that any will be able to match Buried’
s atmosphere of sheer claustrophobia.
Why’s that? In case you somehow haven’t heard, the conceit of the film is that it takes place entirely inside a coffin that’s been buried under the sands of Iraq. The film begins on such a protracted sequence of pure black screen that you’ll be wondering if the projectionist might’ve fallen asleep; it isn’t until you hear Paul Conroy ( Ryan Reynolds
) start to breathe and wake up that you realize that the film is actually running. Soon enough, his lighter is found and we at last get a glimpse of his face and see the situation that he’s in. And there we are for the entirety of the film’s running time; the camera never leaves the coffin, we never see the world above Conroy--it’s all Reynolds inside a box for 95 minutes.
This is, needless to say, an audacious concept. As an exercise in filmmaking, it reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock
’s almost-a-single-take Rope
or Robert Montgomery’s almost-entirely-POV The Lady In The Lake
; both ideas were perhaps a bit ahead of their time, and as such had to creatively find ways around the limitations that technology placed on them. (In Rope
, for instance, the camera will focus on something black or have someone block it when they needed to change the film, as only ten minutes of film would fit in a camera of the day.) Buried
benefits from CGI shot-stitching technology in a few of its shots (as did the long takes of Children Of Men
), as some of them are clearly impossible given the realities of the situation. One can only presume that a number of different coffin sets were constructed to allow the camera to penetrate it from various angles, as the camera is about as fluid as you could hope for from a movie that’s entirely set inside a goddamn coffin
. Also remarkable is the sound mix--the film rarely includes any music, and it uses silence and the simple sounds of Reynold’s breath amid his struggles inside the chamber to heighten the tension to great effect.
As a narrative, the film is perhaps inevitably somewhat weaker, although it is still includes a healthy dose of pure tension. The purity of the idea is loosened a bit with the inclusion of a cell phone with which Conroy makes contact with the outside world, including the terrorists who have kidnapped him, the company he’s a contractor for, and a government agency which attempts to divine his location before the kidnapper’s deadline passes. It’s these conversations that wind up supplying the bulk of the film’s running time and drive the plot forward; Conroy is occasionally left to his own devices, but even then he’s generally flipping through the cell phone, excepting the occasional surprise, such as the somewhat improbable appearance of a snake. Other improbabilities (the ability to get a cell signal while buried underground, how Conroy manages to continue to breathe for 95 minutes in a cell barely bigger than he is) simply require a suspension of disbelief if you’re to enjoy the film at all.
While gripping, the movie feels almost too long to sustain the tension it has in its best moments. There is a fairly fluid up-and-down pattern of "he's definitely going to die in there" and "he's definitely going to be rescued" moments that will keep you guessing up until the closing seconds of the film, but some of the abuse that is heaped on Conroy simply feels like padding. If Jonah Hex
can run 80 minutes (and I apologize for the comparison), there's no reason why Buried
couldn't eliminate some of its excesses and adopt a less-is-more attitude. 95 minutes is by no means excessively long, but not all of the various phone calls feel entirely necessary. As it is, Buried
feels a bit like it suffers from Saturday Night Live
movie syndrome, in that it has the heart of a gripping short experimental film that's been stretched longer than it can handle, and it winds up testing the audience's patience at times as a result.
I like Ryan Reynolds, and he’s good here, but it’s hard not to feel like the film would’ve benefited from a character actor or someone more immediately sympathetic--the script goes out of its way to give Reynolds some of his trademark smarm, and while the humor is welcome given the tension of the situation, he’s a bit less believable as a man who’s facing the inevitability of his own demise. He’s never not likable, but the role seems to call for someone who’s more
than likeable, and you can’t help but wonder what the movie could’ve been had someone with the gravitas of an Ed Harris or an Adrien Brody been cast instead.
It’s kind of telling that I am anticipating the DVD release of Buried
, but not because I actually want to see it again; instead, I’m anticipating some interesting behind-the-scenes documentaries that answer the many “How did they do that?” questions that the film naturally brings up. As a technical achievement, the film is remarkable; it’s too bad that it doesn’t work quite as well as an actual film. I can imagine the filmmakers taking a look at the script for Buried
and thinking “Can we do this?” The answer turned out to be “yes”, but hopefully the film will act as the inspiration for some young filmmaker to ask “Can I do this better