What is it about claustrophobia that people find so terrifying? Often it seems tied inherently to death, but in every case the two certainly aren’t connected, yet claustrophobia remains for many a nightmarish prospect. The physical constriction. The loss of the air. The darkness. It’s an entirely sensory experience and perhaps this is why it’s nearly impossible to rationalize. And perhaps this is why up-and-comer Rodrigo Cortés‘ Buried is so intensely effecting. While there may be time to think about what’s happening, there’s not all that much to think about, which means the viewer expends far more energy simply experiencing the film. Bearing in mind the simplicity of this concept, the utter spareness of the production, and the reliance on the singular performance of Ryan Reynolds, Buried truly is something to see. Or, more to the point, something to feel.
Paul Conroy (Reynolds) wakes in the dark, bloodied, coughing, panicked. He finds an old Zippo, the light revealing to him and the audience the four walls of his wooden coffin and the entirety of the film’s set. Moments later a phone rings, and Buried takes off. Conroy makes one call after another as his air slowly drains away. His story comes in bits and pieces as exposition within the calls: He’s a contracted truck driver, he was ambushed, a ransom must be paid and so on. The story does a fine job of maintaining momentum, though at the heart of the film none of is it really needed. The awareness of a wife and child raise the stakes, and conversations with his own hostage taker force him to make some awful, occasionally horrifying choices. But this story is about a man in a box and whether or not he’ll get out. That’s it and that’s all. Anything else is dressing, regardless of how well it’s handled.
To Cortés’ credit the pieces are mostly handled quite well. Certainly the beauty of this concept lies in its complete unpredictability, and there’s very little you ever see coming. It’s not all good though. The film’s attempt to comment on the war in Iraq, or even war in general is a little weak, reproaching necessary diplomatic choices like non-negotiation with terrorists. Simplifying foreign policy and the politics of war shows ignorance more than compassion. And occasionally the script goes on slight and unnecessary detours in the name of filler. The running time is 94 minutes which feels about right, but it’s clear they didn’t want to come in under that. In one scene, Conroy wakes to find a snake has crawled into his pant leg, and while this produces some lively and frightening action and the only moment in the film where there’s the potential for immediate harm to befall Conroy, it’s still mailed-in and bears no real connection to the rest of the story. The script too has a few humorous “tension-breaks” which really have no business being there. When Conroy is forced to listen to that dreaded on hold music the audience snickers, but all it really serves to do is take you out of the moment. It’s these amateurisms that remind you you’re watching a newly minted director and screenwriter at work.
Sense is the realm within which Cortés seems most comfortable and most proficient; playing sound and light like characters. The quiet moments in the coffin are when the texture of the sound really flares; Reynolds’ heavy, winded breathing and the scratch of his pen on wood as he writes yet another phone number on the ceiling of his tiny room. As for sight, the distinct light sources all provide a unique visual experience. From the flickering Zippo, to the cold blue of the cell phone’s screen, to the eery green of a lightstick provided by his tormentor; the emotional evolution of the light is intriguing to watch and handled skillfully. The main contribution to both Cortés and screenwriter Chris Sparling‘s apparent adeptness is the elegant absence of complications. There’s very little space that allows them to screw anything up. This is good and bad. In the case of this film it clearly works to their credit, but it also means a slight withholding of real judgment until more of their work comes to light. Or perhaps not. Sparling’s next screenplay finds three individuals trapped in a bank’s ATM lobby, so…
Certainly Reynolds’ performance is notable. It would have to be considering it’s the only one the film can depend on. And Reynolds’ is fine, occasionally even great, but this isn’t Tom Hanks in Castaway. While Ryan Reynolds can be emotive, he plays Conroy with a kind of everyman dullness; a sort of simple-minded panic that doesn’t allow much connection to the character. This could be simply a personal disconnect, and therefore a subjective criticism, but for me to connect personally to this character I needed far more vulnerability from Conroy, and Reynolds’ performance simply doesn’t convey much. Anger, and later resignation are both heavily present, but the sort of massive helplessness one would surely be overcome with, while apparent, feels generally an afterthought. But Ryan Reynolds has chops, and (without delving into those dreaded spoilers) the film’s end reveals them in a way that leaves you effected, and drained, and stirred.
And while Reynolds has been building a strong career for awhile now (next summer’s Green Lantern is sure to cement his leading man status), director Rodrigo Cortés and screenwriter Chris Sparling are both officially on the radar. They’ve broken into the echelon of talent worth keeping your eye on and they’ve done it with a film clever enough to be both discussed and purely enjoyed. Buried is smart in its conception and its execution. Made on the cheap and unique enough to garner the sort of conversation studios kill for. Whether or not the film makes an impression on history remains to be seen, but one thing is certain about Buried and its writer/director combo: this is one hell of a way to make a name for yourself.