At The Picture Show
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
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
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.
Continued Below Advertisement
Read more by Chris Bellamy