Ryan Reynolds stars in the claustrophobic thriller Buried (2010)
There's a deliciously dark short story by Edgar Allen Poe called The Premature Burial, from 1844. In it the narrator details his phobia of being buried alive, recounting ghastly experiences of other people who were sealed in their graves while still drawing breath. The story is a whirlwind of terror, and was adapted into a film of the same name by Roger Corman in 1962. In that film an artist tries his best to avoid entombment but is soon laid to his resting place. The list of re-adaptations would take up the rest of this review... the most delectable of which is Jan Švankmajer's satirical horror Lunacy (Sílení, 2005). But the idea isn't exclusive to Poe. In the same way that Frank Darabont's TV thriller Buried Alive (1990) didn't acknowledge the author, neither does this claustrophobic thriller, the new film from Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortés.
After a Hitchcockian opening credits sequence we are met by two minutes of darkness. Faint sounds of scrambling, heavy breathing and wood scratching are soon met by the clicking of a lighter. Flames flicker, the screen briefly illuminates. Shadowed by the dimensions of an underground coffin, we see fear written across the face of CRT truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a blue-collar guy who has no idea how he got into this mess. Slowly he adjusts to his surroundings. There's a phone, but it isn't his, and the text is in Arabic. He phones whoever he can think of, relying on the Zippo lighter to keep him calm. He phones 911, the Pentagon, his wife... no luck. He's put on hold or met by disbelief. Cortés is smart enough to never show us what's happening on the other end of these phone calls and for the entire 95 minute running time the audience is stuck in the coffin with Paul. The experience is terrifying...
Seven coffins were implemented in the making of Buried, one of which was completely open to allow the camera a 360° rotation. For a film of such limited space, Cortés' scope and imagination is anything but. The camera mostly moves in slow pans, if moving at all. Static shots on Paul's face often prove the most effective, as it is through his eyes that the scenario unfolds. But there is also some terrific movement to the camera; the way it quickly darts through the coffin at the ringing of a phone or an outside explosion. One scene focuses on Paul's face from a distance but jaggedly zooms in at the moment of a heartbeat, recalling Dario Argento's Terror At The Opera (1987). It works much better here; there's a genuine life at stake. Cortés' direction is slick but never shows off; the shot structure and framing is impeccable. DoP Eduard Grau captures the bleakness of Paul's environment, but also every bead of sweat, tear, and grain of sand... his compositions are electrifying. I can't continue without mentioning the lighting. Fear lurks in darkness, but the light - all natural, from the mobile, torch or Zippo - holds no greater hope. The lights create atmosphere and reflect mood, but you never think of them in a technical sense; in the sense of telling a story. They are Paul's tools. When they flicker or die, his chances become slimmer. The darkness becomes all-consuming and our fear grows. Then he receives a call and the coffin is illuminated once again. It's beautiful, actually, but you won't realize until after the film is over.
But above all of this - including the exceptional editing by Cortés - the star of the show is the man in front of the camera. I never knew Reynolds could be this good, but he's proven himself to be an actor with great depth of feeling, able to flick between emotions of anxiety, horror, enlightenment and sadness, seemingly with ease. A call to his mother is heartbreaking; his reaction to a video clip sent by terrorists is equally so, but the heartbreak is markedly different. Every step of the way Paul is put through the emotional and physical wringer, and Reynolds grounds every single second of it. I hope he gets the chance to shine like this again - I've become a fan. He also gets the chance to showcase some of his trademark humour though, as the script has a wonderfully dark streak of humour. On the phone to a terror prevention unit he is asked (at the notion of not meeting ransom demands): "Or what?" Dryly, with despair, he replies "Or else they'll take me to Sea World." I laughed hard at that moment, and recoiled in fear at the presence of a snake around the hour mark. Buried is an unforgettable experience, and should be the dictionary definition of the word 'thriller'. Its final ten minutes are exhilarating to the point that I forgot to breathe. Emotional, tense, funny and scary, this is the full package. I don't just recommend you see Buried. I insist you do...
The photography and lighting are captured with stunning detail on Blu Ray, and the sense of fear is enhanced when watched in 5.1 Surround Sound. The aforementioned heartbeat scene pumped through the subwoofer to the point that I thought it was going to explode, and the sound of creaking wood reverberating around my living room made me very uneasy. The sound design is well accommodated by this release. Extras include a 'Making Of' documentary, Cortés interview and standard theatrical trailer. A very nice package indeed.