Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2010

Six feet under

Cortés builds a wall of claustrophobia around Ryan Reynolds in 'Buried'

Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Screenplay: Chris Sparling
Starring: Ryan Reynolds
Rated R / 1 hour, 35 minutes
(out of four)

Good filmmakers seem to enjoy painting themselves into a corner. Whether it's the Dogme 95 movement, Steven Soderbergh exclusively using 1945 film techniques for The Good German or Alfred Hitchcock attempting the illusion of a near-unbroken shot within a single location in Rope, directors revel in challenging themselves with a prescribed set of self-imposed limitations.

Rodrigo Cortés is not yet a known commodity as a director, but Buried - his second feature film - is a triumph of direction. The gimmick is simple: the entire 95-minute film takes place inside the confines of a wooden coffin, as a man wakes up to discover that he has been - quite intentionally - buried alive.

As filmmaking limitations go, this one is a doozy. Buried has to rely entirely on its compositions, lighting and editing, and the performance of Ryan Reynolds. The workmanlike and uneven screenplay provides the functional details for the story, but the film couldn't possibly work without Cortés manufacturing an atmosphere of severe claustrophobic tension - and he does so without letting the single (and tiny, and dark) location get too monotonous.

The impressive thing about his visual approach is the variance of shots we get, despite the fact that all of them are essentially showing the same thing - the inside of a coffin, one or more parts of Reynolds' body, and a cell phone. (There's also a lighter and a knife, but they're merely peripheral.) That's it.

Now about that cell phone. It essentially becomes the second character in this movie - think Wilson from Cast Away, only not so inanimate. The phone is almost like Cortes' cheat sheet - and I say that affectionately. Suffice it to say that if Cortes had made this movie 10 years ago, he would have had even greater difficulty pulling it off. As it is, set in present day, the phone is the film's perpetual out. Let this be a reminder: If your movie is set in the middle of nowhere, underground and inside a coffin, you can still use Google and YouTube as convenient narrative devices.

Still, despite the vast capabilities of modern phones, Cortes by and large keeps the action - and yes, its editing does follow many of the principles of action filmmaking - contained to Paul (Reynolds) either trying to figure things out on his own, or attempting to explain his situation (with increasing exasperation) with whomever he can get on the line. Police department, government bureaucrat, family member, what have you.

What we know about Paul is that he was an American contractor working in Iraq, only to be ambushed by an anonymous group that proceeded to place him in his current predicament. Through a series of phone conversations and his own recollections, he's able to piece together some of what happened to him and why, but the film smartly doesn't spend too much time trying to explain the whole set-up. That would be a bit contradictory anyway, wouldn't it? If you're going to drop us into a buried coffin for an hour and a half, it wouldn't make much sense to briskly explain everything that led up to it, now would it?

In fact, Buried's resistance to outside context is one of its biggest strengths. Throughout Paul's plight, we get intermittent details of his personal life, his work, his day-to-day, and he's on the phone with several different people. Yet never once does Cortés bow to the temptation to leave the coffin - even for a few seconds - to give us a bit of breathing room and get a few different faces on the screen.

If a major studio had taken the same story, we'd have gotten flashbacks of his wife and kid, flashbacks to the scene of the ambush, and at the very least, a split-screen for all of the phone conversations.

But we get none of that here. We get the entire experience from Paul's severely limited perspective. And that's for the best. Any cutaways at all would have broken the suspense. Tension like this builds on top of itself. Let us breathe for a minute or two and the illusion is ruined.

Thankfully, Cortés understands that. He shows such devotion to the film's limitations, and fosters such a strong feeling of claustrophobia, that Buried survives its screenwriting shortcomings and succeeds as a brutal and efficient little spine-tingler.

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