Buried was the hottest property at the Sundance Film Festival this year, earning critical praise and sparking a bidding war between studios (Lionsgate eventually came away victorious). The premise alone had me hooked – a man wakes up buried underground in a coffin with no knowledge of how he got there – and adding Ryan Reynolds to the mix certainly helped pique my interest. But what fascinated me most was the choice director Rodrigo Cortes made regarding how to shoot this film: he decided to film the entire movie inside the coffin, locking the audience in with the character and taking on the challenge of making a compelling film in literally one location.
So did Cortes succeed in creating an interesting movie set entirely inside a coffin? Absolutely. Aided by an inventive script by Chris Sparling, Cortes managed to make a Hitchcockian thriller that remains utterly riveting from the nifty opening credits sequence until the final shot of the film. Locked in the coffin with only a phone and a lighter, truck driver Paul Conroy (Reynolds) is – in perhaps the movie’s one fatal flaw – able to use his phone underground. Through his conversations, we slowly discover the extent of his problem and piece together information that progresses the story and keeps the audience intrigued and involved.
Buried is quite literally a one-man show, since Ryan Reynolds is the only actor seen on screen for the duration of the movie. He has phone conversations with a few supporting characters (played by the likes of Stephen Tobolowsky and some others), but the responsibility for carrying this film lies squarely on Reynolds’ shoulders. To say he rises to the challenge is an understatement, an insult to one of the most captivating performances in recent memory. Reynolds unquestionably commands every scene in this film, earning our trust and empathy seemingly without trying. We feel every labored breath, grimace with every injury, and our emotions rise and fall with his as we listen in on various phone calls that lead toward the film’s conclusion. This is an awards-worthy performance, and comparisons to Tom Hanks in Castaway are not unwarranted.
Eduard Grau, the Director of Photography, impressively only utilized light sources that made sense to the story, contributing a great deal to the film’s realism. This is especially relevant considering the movie plays out almost in real time – there are a few fades to black to allow for some lapses here and there, but for the most part, we’re right in there with Conroy for every second. With the natural light sources shown in essentially real time, the immediacy of the movie heightens our senses and we can’t help but sympathize with his horrific scenario. We’re wondering what’s in each corner of the coffin, but, like Conroy himself, we’re kept in the dark until his lighter illuminates the areas around him. I also assumed the selection of camera angles would quickly get repetitive and stale: not the case. Grau and Cortes evolve their shooting style to reflect Conroy’s emotions, providing shots I didn’t think were possible and never once causing a modicum of boredom.
Aside from the technical achievements and Reynolds’ performance, the most impressive aspects of the movie were the action scenes. Yes, you read that correctly – there are multiple action sequences that take place inside the coffin, one of which caused audible gasps throughout the theater. The suspense Cortes is able to create is palpable, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does next in Hollywood (or otherwise).
Sparling should be given much of the credit for the effectiveness of the film, and infuses some political commentary into his script. I’d rather not give anything away, but check out this really phenomenal trailer for some further hints into the plot. There is also a chilling indictment of corporate self-interest, so there’s a bit more than meets the eye when it comes to this story. Sparling is sure to be one of the big-name screenwriters in Hollywood upon this film’s wide release, and already has a new minimalistic thriller in pre-production called ATM.
With Ryan Reynolds’ powerhouse performance leading the charge, Buried is one of the most memorable movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. The ending will almost certainly inspire debate about the film’s overall quality, but even if you aren’t a fan of the final few shots (I’m still undecided), the impact of this film can’t be denied. Until next time…