Buried, a butt-clenchingly claustrophobic thriller from first-time director Rodrigo Cortés, runs its basic premise well and truly into the ground – both literally and figuratively – and still manages to come out on top.
Working from Chris Sparling’s minimalist screenplay, Cortés has crafted an indie flick with more suspense than a Hitchcock movie marathon, taking the single location thriller to its most intimate and terrifying setting yet: a coffin-like box in which the occupant is still very much alive.
It’s a bit like 2002’s Phone Booth, only where said phone booth has been tipped on its side, buried somewhere in the Middle East and is occupied by Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal, X-men Origins: Wolverine).
Reynolds plays nice guy Paul Conroy, an American truck driver making ends meet in war-torn Iraq for the sake of his family back home. That was until he awoke gagged and bound inside a wooden box, completely clueless as to how or why he’s there. Luckily, he has been provided with a Zippo lighter – virtually his and our only source of light – and a Blackberry phone. With a dwindling battery charge, of course.
In a race against time, Paul frantically calls everyone from his contractor to the FBI for help, but jumping through their ridiculous bureaucratic hoops is difficult enough without being buried in a box. And if you hated voicemail before, I fear for the next person who dares you to “leave a message after the beep.”
Air, light, movement and communication; never has the simplest things in life been the source of such insurmountable tension. The genius of Sparling’s screenplay is that it resists the silly twists and turns that invariably spoils plausibility, something that is always the basis of true horror. Almost a twist in itself, Sparling never lets the harrowing reality of Paul’s situation be overshadowed by a need to expand on the original premise or setting, allowing events to unfold logically and in real-time. From first frame to last, we’re right there in that box with Paul. And it’s as scary as hell.
With little room to move, you’d be forgiven for thinking Cortés and Co. run out of ideas to keep such a simple premise engaging. Yet cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man) constantly innovates with his angles and framing, making exceptional use of diegetic light sources such as a flickering flame and a mobile’s screen glow. With the camera constantly pushed up against his face, it helps that Ryan Reynolds is one of the more photogenic people to get buried in a box, but what helps even more is that he delivers his best performance to date. Sure, he’s hardly fighting off anyone else for screen time, but not many actors possess the ability to hold our attention on their own for an entire film — Sam Rockwell in last year’s Moon springs to mind, but even he had a robotic companion. Despite being virtually immobile, Reynolds expertly manipulates his facial expressions and tone of voice to exhibit the fear, frustration, despair and occasional optimism Paul feels towards his dire situation. He keeps us completely in sync with his character’s unhinged psyche.
Without exaggeration, I walked out Buried physically trembling. This was partly because the final five minutes are about as nail-biting as five minutes of film can possibly be, but mostly because of the tremendous adoration I have for the filmmakers who have achieved so much with so little. Whoever says you need to think outside the box should think again, because Buried is nothing short of a minimalist masterpiece.