Directed by Rodrigo Cortés
Starring Ryan Reynolds
From the moment this picture starts, you are locked down in the small confines of a pitch-black coffin buried a few feet below the dusty earth with just a lighter, a phone, a hip flask of whiskey and of course, everybody’s favourite ‘Party Liaison’ – Ryan Reynolds. Director Rodrigo Cortés’s Hollywood debut is certainly risky business, with the 90 minutes of runtime representing the amount of oxygen available to his terrified protagonist, and of course the script by Chris Sparling intends to use all 90 of these breathless minutes to up the ante. The result is a hit and miss experiment that tries to walk the tightrope of risky, innovative production that you need with minimalist setting, without falling into the black hole of gimmick filmmaking.
The premise is solid. U.S truck driver Paul Conroy was doing contract work in Iraq until his convoy is ambushed and he suddenly wakes up tied and bound in a coffin somewhere in the desert. After several futile attempts to get himself out he gives up (no Kill Bill fantasies here), only to be woken by a mobile phone he didn’t know was there. But of course – the display is in Arabic. He hysterically punches in calls to the state department, his employer and the FBI all who treat his call with differing degrees of helpfulness and compassion. When he finally remembers the original caller and returns their call, he discovers that his life is being ransomed for 5 million dollars and his captors would very much like him to make a gruesome ransom flick with his video phone.
The fascinating element of Buried is how frustrating it is. As Paul uses the dwindling battery of his phone to cast line after line out to the free world in hope of some instant action on his plight, he experiences the worst of our automated bureaucratic society that is still wading through the post-9/11 institutionalised paranoia that we can all recognise as our own. He is passed around different departments of government agencies, asked irrelevant ‘standard response’ questions, put on hold and even hung up on by a stressed sister-in-law. But while you might think this would be boring, the infuriation rapidly creates the suspense of the film as his situation becomes increasingly worse. We are aligned to empathise with Paul because the camera never leaves the coffin and rarely leaves the space 6 inches from Ryan Reynolds face, the confinement making almost every position an impossible shot.
Unfortunately the frustration stretches to other elements. Early in the film you will be squirming for every minute (and there are many) where Paul keeps his trusty Zippo burning for tasks that don’t need light (fire uses oxygen…obviously?). This along with the fact that his mobile has perfect reception a few feet underground out in the desert, when every other phone will go dead under one thin metal plate. It’s the little things like these that turn the heartbreaking frustration of empathy into a teeth grinding session at being locked in a coffin with Ryan Reynolds while silly things are happening with the physics.
For a few reasons, it’s fairly safe to take Buried off the cheap, humble, darling-debut mantle that many have been stretching up for. Yes Hollywood said it could never be filmed, and it is a massive achievement to pull it off. It is 95 minutes worth of squeezing every breath out of your lungs with suspense. But considering its contemporaries might make Buried seem a little less extraordinary. The similar torturous experience of the debut Saw instalment was bought to us for a third of the price tag of Buried. A third. AND we got Danny Glover and Cary Elwes, not just Mr Reynolds’ sweaty-brow. Or we could get crazy and talk the cult sci-fi hit The Cell, another film with a perilously simple premise that can boast one eighth the cost to make and gave Vincenzo Natali a much deserved boost into Hollywood-land.
This one is sure to polarise audiences. Some will like the claustrophobia and the novel story that complements the film’s minimalism, hanging on every politically-flavoured phone conversation that Paul Conroy shouldn’t be able to make and despair along with him at the way of the world. Others will be frustrated for different reasons, but whichever position you take – Buried is really nothing to get excited about.
You will like this if: You can appreciate a real time, race against the clock thrill ride that plays on a few of our darkest fears in the midst of the shadier sides of our wartime society.
You will hate this if: You think 3 million is too much to pay to see Ryan Reynolds in a box.
Buried is currently screening in a wide release