If you're a director searching for a low-cost solution to filmmaking, what could be better than limiting your film to one actor and one location? Of course, eschewing the bells and whistles of modern cinema means you better have a pretty fantastic script to back it up: it has to be entertaining simply through its storytelling. Director Rodrigo Cortés has hit the jackpot with Buried, a film with a story so stark it could almost be a play.
Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up in darkness. He flicks on his Zippo lighter and finds that he is inside a coffin, under the ground. An American truck driver delivering supplies in Iraq, the last thing Paul remembers is his truck being attacked by a group of Iraqis with automatic rifles, and now he's here. His phone rings—except it's not his phone, it has Arabic text and terrible reception—but he does what anyone in the situation would do: he starts making calls. But between the bad reception, being put on hold and getting answering machines—the things that tick you and me off in everyday life—have become the difference between life and death for Paul.
I hesitate to reveal any further twists, but be assured that the suspense moves quickly and organically. Cortés builds layers of ticking bombs—the phone's battery life, the oxygen level in the coffin, etc.—and by the end the tension has ratcheted to near-unbearable levels. The inherent claustrophobic nature of the coffin itself is enhanced by the seemingly infinite threat of darkness that wraps around Reynolds' body, licking menacingly at him with shadows created by the Zippo.
Reynolds himself was something of a revelation to me; I suppose I haven't been paying enough attention to his transformation into a thoroughly fine actor. I've seen a number of his films, but here he plays Paul as a believable everyman who finds himself caught up in the bureaucracy of war, and that comedic timing he's known for is a godsend in easing just enough of the tension to allow it to continue to build. But it's in the moments where Paul's frustrations reach their limit that I found Reynolds most relatable. He's asked to single-handedly carry the film and it's a pleasure to see that his charmingly one-note performance from Van Wilder will not define him forever.
It remains to be seen whether Buried can break out of the "indie" box in which it finds itself (pun noted, but not intended). Although releasing through horror giant Lionsgate, the single-location novelty is a double-edged sword for a broader public, who may find the phone calls repetitive and action-less, and be disappointed not to see more of Reynolds' comedy or a big action scene. The film is comparatively small when stacked next to something like a Saw sequel, but it is definitely not an experimental work and its aspirations lie squarely in the realm of entertainment.
Buried is the epitome of a good idea well-actualized. Variations on the story have been done but here the focus is solely the man and the coffin, and never straying from that core focus is a bold move. "Hitchcockian" is a term bandied about far too freely these days, but I do think it's the sort of film that the master of unyielding suspense would love. Buried certainly would have made a damn fine episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Cross-published on Ornery-Crosby and Twitch.