Phil on Film Index

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Review - Buried

Buried has a clever gimmick, one location, one actor and a handful of props. Fortunately, it also possesses a strong central performance and some extremely resourceful direction, and those are the attributes that allow it to fully exploit its potential. Buried opens in complete darkness, and only the sound of increasingly panicked breathing can be heard echoing around the cinema. We are inside a cramped box with a scared and confused American named Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds). He screams for help to no avail, and when he finally reaches for his lighter and uses it to examine his surroundings, the horrifying truth of his predicament is revealed. Paul is trapped inside a coffin, and he has been buried six feet underground.

It is a nightmarish scenario, and the primal, universal fears that such a premise evokes among its audience is one of the key factors behind Buried's success. The film's director, Rodrigo Cortés, understands the potency of this situation and he dedicates himself entirely to preserving that effect. Not for one minute does his camera leave the inside of this box. There are no cutaways to Paul's would-be rescuers closing in on his location, and when he calls for help on the mobile he has been buried with, there are no inserts of an unanswered phone ringing in an empty house. Every decision of that nature would have undermined the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and tension that Cortés so carefully cultivates, and his refusal to make life easier for himself is hugely admirable. Instead, the director has to show real ingenuity to keep his film alive and visually interesting as we watch one man squirming in a tight location.

He achieves this through clever production design and camerawork, finding fresh angles on his subject and utilising the space available to him extremely intelligently. He even toys daringly with the film's spatial consistency, occasionally pulling back from his protagonist in an impossible fashion, leaving him isolated and surrounded by black emptiness. Credit must also be paid to cinematographer Eduard Grau, who skilfully lights whole scenes with nothing more than the glare of a mobile phone or the flame from a lighter, and the exceptional sound design, with the creaking of the box and Paul's anxious breathing ensuring the scenes of pitch darkness are unbearably tense. In every department, this is an extremely accomplished piece of filmmaking.

All of those technical achievements would count for nothing without the efforts of the man in the box, though. I have never been impressed with Ryan Reynolds before now, but perhaps it's simply the case that he has never before been given the opportunity to show what he's capable of. Buried gives him that chance and he takes it, throwing everything he's got into his performance and lending all of his weight behind the emotions – fear, anger, resignation, determination – that Paul experiences throughout his ordeal. While other actors are heard on the other end of Paul's distress calls (Stephen Tobolowsky is perfectly cast as a maddeningly officious lawyer), the film is essentially a one-man show and the fact that Reynolds pulls it off is testament to his commitment and talent.

Not everything in Buried works. There are times when you can sense the strain in Chris Sparling's screenplay as it tries to find new twists and turns in the corners of Paul's coffin, and a couple of the climactic twists come off as too cruel and unconvincing to work, but Buried is generally riveting stuff. It stays true to its premise and relies on old-fashioned cinematic techniques to get under its audience's skin and into their bones. From the Saul Bass-inspired opening credits, Buried consciously draws comparisons to Hitchcock, whose Lifeboat is an obvious influence, and when a film can leave you gripping the arms of your seat and gasping for air, you have to say it has earned such lofty comparisons.