Buried (Spain, 2010)

September 23, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Buried Poster

Let me start out by saying that Buried isn't a lot of fun, but it is raw and compelling. In the same way it's impossible to turn away from a grisly accident, taking your eyes away from Ryan Reynolds' hypnotizing performance is not an option. There are times when you'll feel like you're trapped in the box with him. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and uncomfortable in the extreme. You'll feel his fear, anger, and frustration. Buried is less about generating bursts of tension than it is about building anxiety and a visceral sense of unease. Some of the director's choices toward the end are unforgivably cruel, but they accomplish a feat that is almost unheard-of (at least in this day and age). Buried is not for the faint of heart, those with a phobia of enclosed spaces, or anyone who attends movies merely for escapism and entertainment. This is a difficult motion picture but one that will reward anyone who sticks with it to the bitter end.

The premise is simple: Paul Conroy (Reynolds) is a truck driver working in Iraq. His convoy is attacked and he is knocked out and captured. When he awakens, he is trapped within a wooden coffin buried under the ground. Within his potential grave, he finds a few tools that can help him, including a lighter, a cell phone (with battery life and a weak signal), and a flashlight. Escape on his own is not possible. The weight of the dirt presents a barrier he cannot overcome and his air supply is draining away. His only hope is to use the phone to weave a network of connections that might allow someone... anyone... to locate him. But others with less altruistic motives wish to contact him, as well.

The amazing thing about Buried is that director Rodrigo Cortés, despite confining every second of the movie's 94 minute running time to the inside of a crude coffin, holds the viewer's interest. By varying the angles of shots and changing camera placement, he avoids monotony. Cortés also doesn't "cheat" by employing flashbacks or other devices that would take the action beyond the grave. The cell phone conversations allow us to learn details about Paul's background as well as the reason why his current situation is what it is. Everything about the style, the narrative, the acting, and the structure is designed to ramp up the creeping sense of dread as Buried moves toward its conclusion.

Buried would not be as effective as it is without the performance of Ryan Reynolds, who sheds his clean-cut image for a dark and grimy role. With blood caking his forehead, Reynolds is bathed in sweat as the camera lingers on him for more than 90 minutes. It captures every emotion that flickers across his face, from the darkest moments of despair to the faint glimmer of hope. He is lit only by the flame from a lighter or the illumination from a cell phone screen. It's easy to understand how an actor might find a part like this daunting, with more than 50% of the shots being close-ups, but Reynolds displays hitherto unrevealed acting chops in letting it all hang out. The other "actors" are merely voices on the other end of the telephone: Stephen Tobolowski, Samantha Mathis, Erik Palladino. They provide an opportunity for Reynolds to play off someone else and to engage in dialogue. Tobolowski, despite not being seen, represents the worst kind of cold-blooded villain one is likely to encounter.

The less one knows about the details of Buried going in, the more impact the film is likely to have. Nevertheless, the movie works not because of twists and switchbacks in the narrative, but because of the skill with which Cortés has conceived this singularly disturbing nightmare. (He serves not only as the director but also as the editor.) Audience members know from the outset that Buried is going to be different - it opens with a black screen and nearly a half-minute of silence. Then, just as the viewer is wondering if the projector has broken, he hears the first telltale signs of someone awakening in the dark. It takes a while longer before a lighter illuminates the scene. All of Buried is like this - about atmosphere and mood, and about being in that coffin with Paul and feeling that one's fate is entwined with his. Sitting through Buried exists somewhere between an experience and an ordeal but, when it's over and the viewer emerges from the theater, it remains unshakeable and unforgettable. Movies in 2010 are not designed to leave a lasting imprint, but that's precisely what Buried achieves.

Buried (Spain, 2010)

Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Cast: Ryan Reynolds
Screenplay: Chris Sparling
Cinematography: Eduard Grau
Music: Victor Reyes
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2010-09-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1