Buried: Film review

15 October 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

There’s little I find more terrifying than the prospect of being buried alive.

The combination of claustrophobic confines, diminishing oxygen and almost guaranteed death is tapped into and relentlessly exploited in the new one-man thriller Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds.

Directed by Rodrigo Cortes, Buried is the story of Paul Conroy (played by Reynolds), an American contractor working in Iraq who is kidnapped, ransomed and buried alive after an insurgent attack. With time and oxygen running out, Conroy finds himself in a frantic race to survive not only against the growing demands of his kidnappers, but also against the political bureaucracy of his would-be rescuers.

Without pulling any punches, Buried is quite literally one man inside a dark box for close to 90 minutes. A bizarre cross-section between marketable gimmick, low budget production and a truly original plot device, Buried’s high-concept lends a sense of claustrophobia and panic to what might otherwise be a drab and uninvolving film.

With little more than a phone, a pen, a knife, a lighter and some glowsticks inside the coffin with Reynolds, Cortes uses the bare bones nature of his film to build an intricate backstory that relies on a supporting cast of faceless voices heard down phone lines. There are the calls to Conroy’s wife and family that build an emotional attachment, the vicious calls to Conroy’s thick-accented kidnapper that continually raise the stakes, and the back and forth calls with a Special Forces agent trying to locate Conroy’s location that drives the film forward. Throw in a rapidly depleting phone battery, a slithery coffin intruder and airstrikes to Conroy’s burial site and you’ve got yourself more tension and drama than a dysfunctional family dinner.

Filling a film shot entirely inside a coffin with the degree of character and story found in most films is no easy feat, but Cortes achieves a lot with the limitations of his setting. The unique visuals he creates from nothing more than diagetic lighting is incredibly impressive, ensuring that despite never leaving the coffin, the scenario never fails to remain visually arresting. Focusing of extreme close-ups with very tight angles, Cortes’ claustrophobic visual style effortlessly conveys Conroy’s panic and desperation, delivering one of the more nuanced and impressive directorial performances of the year.

Even more impressive is Ryan Reynolds in a role that’s the stuff of acting dreams, 90 minutes of lonesome screen-time with enough drama to induce audience heart attacks. Fortunately Reynolds is up for the challenge, bringing Conroy to life with an incredibly nuanced performance that reeks of panic, anxiety and desperation. With his stocks on the rise in Hollywood, Buried cements Reynolds’ place as Hollywood’s most sough-after actor with a rousing performance that showcases his dramatic abilities perfectly.

But despite Cortes’ often inspired direction and Reynolds’ impressive performance, Buried is still plagued with a multitude of problems , the most obvious being its length and pacing. Feeling more like a short film with long stretches of padding, Buried’s commitment to its high-concept sometimes works against itself and often stifles its flow. While Cortes’ direction stems story-induced boredom for the first forty minutes, there’s only so long style can reign over substance, and that’s where Buried’s Achilles heel lies:  it’s too short to slow burn and too slow to remain exciting.

The authenticity Buried aims for eventually comes unstuck as its many inconsistencies to pile up. Despite Conroy seeming like a reasonably intelligent guy, Buried will leave you scratching your head in confusion at some of his choices and flat-out not buying some of the implausible scenarios that scream of the kind of ineptitude only a screenwriter could conjure up. At the risk of entering spoiler territory, let’s just say the film’s climax also doesn’t live up to expectations, delivering a ‘twist’ so straightforward and predictable that it makes M. Night Shyamalan look like an absolute genius.

Despite a promising premise and some truly great talent, Buried simply isn’t interesting enough to counteract its self-imposed limitations. By tieing itself up with high-concept ideas and never venturing outside the box (forgive the pun), it succeeds as a talent showreel, filled with incredible direction and inspired acting, but with little that works to tie it all together as the great film it might have seemed like becoming.

Michael Calle is a recent La Trobe Journalism graduate.