[REVIEW] Good to the Last Gasp
Darkness. For the first four and a half minutes of Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried, nothing is seen; instead, all that is heard is the gentle creaking of wood and the sense of growing alarm. Testing your surroundings, you feel the sharp prick of stray wood chips. Pushing against the wooden wall above you, the truth begins to dawn on you: you’re trapped.
This scenario is the premise of Buried, director Rodrigo Cortes’ second feature film starring all-Canadian pretty boy Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds, known for his smug yet charming work in romantic comedies like Van Wilder and The Proposal, takes a turn for the dramatic as everyman Paul Conroy. An American truck driver contracted to deliver supplies in Iraq, Conroy wakes to find himself in a coffin, placed there by Iraqi insurgents who hope to hold Conroy for ransom. While the story is simple, Cortes’s creative take on this claustrophobic nightmare subtly grips the viewer.
With an estimated budget of $2 million dollars, Buried is minimalist in every sense of the word. Shot over 17 days – typical studio film shoots run for a few months – and using seven different coffins, the film spends the entirety of its 95 minute run time focused on Conroy. There no flashbacks of his relationship with his family, no cut-scenes to the voices on the other end of the cell phone. However, Cortes’ modest approach to Buried successfully encapsulates Conroy’s terrifying plight.
Although set within the confines of Conroy’s wooden coffin, Cortes makes the most out of this limited location. Using a variety of close-ups, the director is able to define both a sense of panic within the protagonist. In a scene in which Conroy attempts to call an FBI field office, the bluish glow of the cell phone’s screen accentuates each bead of sweat on the man’s face. Similarly, another shot in which Conroy leaves a message for his wife features Reynolds’ traditionally blemish-free face riddled with stubble and minor cuts; with blood, sand and sweat mix together and pasted on Conroy’s neck, Cortes ensures that the viewer does not miss the grimy details that make the truck driver’s struggle that much more difficult.
Conversely, Cortes also uses a series of zoom outs to reflect the coffin’s lonely atmosphere of despair. Speaking at the Sundance Film Festival, Cortes expressed his desire to capture Conroy’s suffering. “All my efforts as a director were focused on projecting the audience inside poor Ryan’s brain,” the director said, “with no mercy, no concessions…no light and no air.” After Conroy is fired from the company he risked his life for, Cortes moves the camera up from the subject; as the camera travels away from Conroy’s grave, the darkness of the surrounding earth takes up more of the screen, almost ready to envelop the miniscule light of Conroy’s flashlight.
However, none of Cortes’ artistic direction would have served any purpose if Reynolds could not have handled the depth of Conroy’s terrorized state. For Reynolds, the trauma of Conroy’s character took a toll on his own psyche. “I’ll never, ever in my life complain on a set again after being on that set,” he said in an interview with Gentleman Quarterly. “Sixteen, seventeen days of doing that… It was such a state of emotional distress.” For 95 minutes, Reynolds holds the audience’s attention. Trapped and alone, Reynolds’ Conroy is taken through a sequence of coping mechanisms: panic, desperation, denial, hope, acceptance and resignation are all touched upon. From shouting for help to quietly whimpering in hopelessness, Reynolds displays a range of emotions not seen in his previous performances.
Though Reynolds generally keeps the character of Conroy convincing, there are times when the extent of the captured truck driver’s experience seems lost on the budding actor. While the frustration of being buried underground is clearly understandable, Reynolds’ constant roars and hollers in response to the slightest hint of obstacle resembles those of a child throwing a temper tantrum than a man doing his best to return to his family and home. When asked by a State Department representative what the kidnappers will do if their demands are not met, Reynolds sarcastically quips, “or else they’ll take me Seaworld.” Though the writing must also be held accountable, Reynolds’ embellished delivery is at times unfitting for such a grave situation.
The choice to solely depict Conroy’s actions is a decision that benefits the entirety of the film. Although Conroy interacts with various characters, the voices of these supporting roles allow the viewer allow their own creative processes interact with the film. By letting their own imagination run free, the audience can envision the film’s faceless characters – Linda (Samantha Mattis), Paul’s wife who pleads him to make his way back home, or Alan Davenport (Stephen Tobolowsky,) an executive of the company that Paul works for who is disinterested in Conroy’s situation – as it sees fit.
Buried keeps the viewer engaged throughout. The film’s duration is also just long enough to keep the audience captivated without running the risk of losing their attention span. Though there are some practical questions that the film does not take in to consideration – how Conroy’s Zippo lighter manages to not burn up all the oxygen in such a small coffin, or how a cell phone can receive reception underground when other cell phones barely have coverage up above – these inconsistencies do not take away from the film’s distressing tensions.
Buried, like a modern day McGyver tale, features a hero who must make something out of nothing. Though there are inevitable storyline hiccups and credibility obstacles in the way, the end result is all that matters. And as the film surges to its climactic ending, the viewer is immersed in the ride until he too, not knowing if salvation will come, is left gasping for air.