Buried is the cinematic equivalent of a cheese sandwich.
Bear with me here.
If you know anything at all about Buried going into your viewing – which you’re bound to, as its one-sentence pitch is just about a working definition of the term ‘high concept’ – you know that Ryan Reynolds wakes up inside a coffin, discovers (among other items) a mobile phone, and has to figure out who put him there and what he has to do to get out. On the surface, it has much in common with Joel Schumacher’s Phonebooth (2002) – the protagonist is confined to a single location and must use a phone to try to both solve and escape his predicament – however whereas Phonebooth relied on a framing device for its story as well as numerous cutaways from the titular ‘booth, Buried takes a much, much braver approach; to never once leave Reynolds and the interior of the coffin, with the few other performances in the film being (literally) phoned in. In spite of its self-imposed limitations, the film is a taut, well-crafted thriller that puts its audience through almost as much of a wringer as its leading man, and while it’s by no means a classic, it’s an interesting, well-made diversion and a great showcase for Reynolds’ range.
fter an impressive opening credits sequence, with Saul Bass-like titles accompanied by a bombastic score, we are greeted with… utter blackness. And then some breathing, and animalistic, frustrated growls. In fact, we don’t see anything at all until a lighter is found, illuminating both Reynolds’ face and the grim situation his character is in, as it’s immediately apparent that he’s been buried alive. Following the swift discovery of a mobile phone (with all of its text displayed in Arabic) and through a series of desperate conversations we learn that he is Paul Conroy, a truck driver working in Iraq, delivering supplies to locals. Following an attack on his convoy and with all of his colleagues feared dead, he appears to be the only one kept alive… but why? And by who?
To give away much more about the workings of the plot and how it unfolds would be to ruin a large part of Buried’s appeal; much of what makes it rewarding is in how the story is tackled while never leaving the confines of the coffin, and in the way each conversation impacts upon the next, opening the story up in intriguing and often clever ways. Equally smart is Rodrigo Cortés’ direction, which is so tight it practically throws a net over the audience and drags us into that coffin. The many close-up shots he utilises bring the audience right into the fraught scenario and, if anything, the lack of directorial options Cortés has in shooting his actor actually benefits the overwhelming claustrophobia that runs throughout the film; there were only two shots that I noticed which intentionally broke the illusion of being trapped in that cramped space alongside Conroy, and both are used pointedly to highlight his isolation and despair. Cortés also uses some clever visual cues to introduce character detail without it having to be done through dialogue; various key facts are established early on via a series of quick close ups, such as a shot of a wedding ring on Conroy’s hand and, importantly, one showing the mobile phone – the only key to his escape – being down to three bars of battery life upon its discovery. Small details like these are revealed quickly and subtly and allow Conroy’s character to be all the more believable, as his dialogue is entirely focused on his predicament and without the additional baggage of having to weave in background on his character. It’s very well handled. Another particularly inventive directorial choice is the introduction of additional light sources at around the mid-point of the film; it feels non-forced story-wise, and allows Cortés to move the colour palette away the from the established orange and browns of a zippo lighter into both the eerie green of glow-sticks, and the dual gold/red of a cheap torch; a small flourish which again helps the film sustain visual interest for its running time without having to break its own rules. Of course, for all its directorial tricks and flair, the success or failure of Buried as a film inevitably rests at Ryan Reynolds’ feet. So let’s discuss him for a moment.
These days, Ryan Reynolds is right on the cusp of being a full-blown movie star. Whatever ‘It’ is supposed to be – the unteachable quality that separates great performers from their place in history, or their own star on the Walk of Fame – this guy has it. A total package of looks, ability and charisma, his starring role in this year’s mega-budget ‘Green Lantern’ should see him establish himself once and for all among the Will Smith’s and George Clooney’s of modern cinema. But it hasn’t always been like that; Reynolds has done it the hard way, working his way up through a variety of comedies, buddy-roles and quirky romance films to finally find himself at the top of the heap. If, like me, your first introduction to Reynolds was 2002’s Van Wilder: Party Liaison, you’ll probably understand why the journey has been such a long one. Released at the peak of the American Teen Comedy revival that was spear-headed by 1999’s American Pie, it was a crass, stupid and (worst of all) unfunny piece of crap, and Reynolds’ name was right there above the title. It should have launched his career as a leading man but, saddled with a smug-shit character that you literally wanted to punch in the face until your arms were worn to their elbows, it instead relegated him to a decade of bit parts, buddy-roles and supporting characters (he was far and away the best thing in Blade: Trinity for example, although that might be a back-handed compliment) from which he’s only just emerging. Now, as an actor with that sort of career, do you think that Reynolds choosing a film like Buried at this stage is coincidental? Of course not. Everyone knows he has the looks and charm to be huge, but does he actually have the chops? This is the sort of role that proves you do, or you really don’t.
It may be the case that Reynolds wanted to prove something to his critics, but I think above all else, it was important that he proved it to himself, pushing himself with a role unlike any other in his career. I’m happy to say that this gamble (and it was exactly that) pays off in spades, as he ably carries the film with an impressive tour-de-force. Running the gamut of emotions throughout the film’s run-time, he successfully draws the audience into the hopelessness of his situation; by turns we feel (as he does) relief and despair, anger and acceptance, with every breakthrough made or hope dashed being realistically brought to life on screen. While his character is not always likeable or rational – who would be under the circumstances? – he’s most certainly a real one. It’s a brilliant performance, and although it might be merely considered a shrewd career-move by some, it’s one which truly separates Ryan Reynolds from the sea of jock-shaped Jonny Handsomes that are currently being handed male leading roles (and yes, I’m looking at you Taylor Litsch and Robert Pattison, you black holes of personality).
Ultimately though, the film as a whole never quite lives up to the standard of its lead performance, and much like fellow one-man-show ‘Castaway’, you may find yourself wishing for something more substantial overall; it is, after all, one man in a box for 90 minutes, and so while Buried should be applauded for sticking so rigidly to its own concept, the film is too bound by its own rules to ultimately be anything more than a genre curio. Also, by trying to squeeze some additional running time out of a limit number of avenues, there are a couple of questionable decisions in the script which really demand more than just suspension of disbelief (suddenly and inexplicably figuring out how to change the language of the mobile phone Conroy is using to English, for example) and really pull the audience out of the tension of the experience. Not enough to make it unworthy of recommendation, but certainly enough to knock a potentially great film down a few notches to merely ‘good’.
And so here, finally, is where the cheese sandwich analogy comes in; if you order one then you probably know pretty much exactly what you’ll be getting and that you’re likely to enjoy it, and it’s very much the same when you sit down to watch Buried. You know going in that it’s 90 minutes of Ryan Reynolds trapped underground and nothing more or less, but it’s how it goes about this limited concept that, while not being wholly satisfying, certainly delivers on what it promises. While the film won’t win any awards or be remembered necessarily as a genre great, it does boast a superb leading performance, an intriguing premise and some subtle, clever direction, all in all combining to create a sub-Hitchcockian thriller that’s certainly interesting enough to nibble on for 90 minutes. It might not be for everybody but hey, neither are cheese sarnies.