A film review by Craig J. Koban October 26, 2010

Rank:  #15


2010, R, 95 mins.


Paul Conroy: Ryan Reynolds

With the voices of:
Dan: Robert Paterson / Alan: Stephen Tobolowsky / Linda: Samantha Mathis / Pamela: Ivana Mino

Directed by Rodrigo Cortes / Written by Chris Sparling.

BURIED is an astonishingly minimalist Hitchcockian thriller that ruminates on the two biggest phobias of the human condition: hopelessness and claustrophobia.  The fact that it does so by having the entire – and I mean entire – running time of the film set within the confines of a buried coffin is all the more masterful and twistedly ingenious.  

Shot over a scant 17 days in Barcelona on an equally scant $3 million budget by Rodrigo Cortes, BURIED tells the depraved and chilling story of an American truck driver that finds himself buried alive in a wooden coffin where he spends the whole film desperately attempting to find a way back six feet above ground.  On paper, the film feels like gimmicky stunt, but what totally astonished me was how calculatingly enrapturing the film became as I watched it.  Few films are able to completely and triumphantly engage our interest and, most importantly, maintain it with such a spectacularly limited setting and narrative. 

The film is utterly nerve-wracking and generates pulsating suspense and a sense of dread in ways that so many pathetic and bloated Hollywood entries – oftentimes costing 30 times more – seem incapable of mustering.  BURIED is about showcasing the filmmaking resourcefulness of Cortes while also serving as an exultant testament to one of the most thankless performances of this year by Ryan Reynolds.   Just consider, for a moment, what Cortes has to do here: He takes a bare bone premise - man trapped alive in a coffin – and derives as much blistering intensity and fist-clenched drama as one could only dream of, and he does so by never segueing away from his doomed main character and his plight.  He never cuts away from the man, nor do we see any action outside of the coffin, nor do we get anything in the way of flashbacks, exposition, or sequences involving grieving family members or the perpetrators of the heinous crime itself.  No, Cortes keeps everything within the exasperatingly tiny confines of a cheap wooden casket.  No other film in the history of the medium - at least that I recall - has felt so sickeningly constrained in terms of its surroundings than BURIED. 

Then there is Reynolds himself, an actor that can be both arrogantly smug and self-congratulatory in some roles while being nuanced and sincere in others.  I don't think that anyone will be prepared for the miracle performance he pulls off in BURIED, where he unalterably sheds away his movie star good looks, vanity, and camera mugging theatrics and instead forces himself to look deeper into his soul to churn out a completely believable performance that utilizes mostly his face in close-ups and body language.  Cortes may have had an incredibly difficult task with making the limited space of a coffin's interior visually arresting and compelling, but Reynolds, I think, deserves even larger props for what he achieves here: to say that he “carries” the film is the grossest of understatements.  He is the only person – sans for one brief video he views on a cell phone display – that we see in the whole film.  He has to emote fear, apprehension, panic, and life-or-death desperation throughout the entirety of the film, all while being constrained and horizontal in a box.  There have been very few convincing performances like this one that requires the actor to suggest so much while doing so deceptively little

The opening sequence of BURIED is a masterstroke:  After some nifty throwback title cards set against a wonderful score by Victor Reyes, we are plunged into total blackness for what feels like an agonizing long time, so long that it would be easy for filmgoers to flee for their exits to go to the projectionist to see if anything is wrong.  Slowly and surely, though, we begin to hear the faintest breathing of someone awakening against the depressing darkness of the screen until we begin to hear panic-stricken screams and the sound of a body contorting out of control.  A lighter can be heard igniting, but it only comes on after a few failed attempts.  We then are introduced to this film’s nightmare, where we remain for the next 90 minutes, and from this point it’s impossible not to be transfixed: we feel the torment, despair, and suffocation that this poor man feels, and the opening is crucial to establishing this. 

Discussing the plot in any discernable detail would be a mistake on my part (and, yes, despite the limitation of the environment, there is a story), but all I will say is this:  Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a poor victim that we learn is a truck driver that works for a private contractor in Iraq delivering supplies when his convoy is attacked by insurgents.  All he can seem to remember before he blacked out was the other truck drivers being killed, and not much else.  After dealing with the heart-stopping trauma of his situation, Paul pulls himself together and takes stock: all he has with him is a lighter, a cell phone, a knife, a pen and a flask of alcohol.   

He does what anyone in his situation, I guess, would do: he attempts several times to contact his wife and his employers (who gave him a safety number to call if anything went wrong, but he no longer has it in his possession), and all he is greeted by are answering machines and annoying and anonymous voices at the call centers that put him on hold and “thank him for his patience.”  His attempts to call 911 lead him to calling his family, then his employers and finally the FBI, which then culminates with conversations with his own kidnapper, that demands a ransom in the millions to secure his freedom let go.  Of course, the governmental agents Paul speaks with refuse to give in, as ransoming with terrorist is not “policy”, which seems like a really, really crappy answer to give someone that has been buried alive with a short oxygen supply. 

I'm not going to reveal anything else, other that to say that BURIED should be require viewing in film classes for how to use camera setups, angles, and compositions in an intriguing and varying manner with such a restricted setting.  Cortes and his cinematographer, Eduard Grau (deserving serious Oscar consideration here) are kind of fiendishly creative with the way they use the 2.35:1 widescreen ratio to create images that wholeheartedly reinforce Paul’s intensely small spatial boundaries.  Perhaps even more diabolically inventive is how they manage to create scenes of suspense and terror: how does one create nail-biting action scenes where the character himself is actually not moving at all?  BURIED shows us how, and what’s truly extraordinary is how tactile, scary, and tortuously spellbinding Cortes makes this film in one enclosed space.  Yes, being buried alive is the mother of all nightmares and is terrifying in itself, but the way this film establishes, escalates, and then maintains that level of extreme psychological horror is a major feat. 

Of course, many will ask some nagging questions during the film, like how does a BlackBerry work so well under those circumstances and manage to get good satellite coverage while being below ground, not to mention that it takes Paul an alarmingly long time to figure out how to change the onscreen language from Arabic to English.  Then there is the political sermonizing within the film about how Paul’s plight is indicative of wage-earning innocents working within a war-torn country that is caught dangerously between corporations looking to make a buck in reconstructing Iraq and the militant insurgents that want Americans dead.   

Yet, BURIED is such a methodical and borderline excruciating exercise in atmosphere and mood that works so innovatively well that you grow less conscious of logic-breaking concerns and thematic foibles the more you sit through it and experience it.  And I can’t emphasize enough the part about experiencing this film; BURIED is not one of those flashy, high concept thrillers to just passively view.  This is a film where we actively experience and empathize with its character’s pathetic misery, desolation, and his gruesome predicament.   Watching BURIED I was reminded of Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT, which too confined its story to the very limited environment of a WWII-era lifeboat.  What BURIED does is almost more devilishly inspired and macabre, as it takes a monumentally bleak premise and never backs down or goes out of its way to placate audience's emotions, even in the end.  Hitchcock once commented that he liked to manipulate or "play" audiences like pianos and that the only way he could exorcise his own fears was to make movies about them.  Cortes, no doubt, had these thoughts in his mind all throughout making BURIED.

  H O M E