Through The Darkest Hour, Grace Did Not Shine On Me
There are inevitably two critical questions to be asked about Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried: 1) Can a film whose entire set consists of the interior of a wooden box possibly sustain itself? And 2) Does Ryan Reynolds have the acting chops to effectively carry such a film, when he is literally the only actor you will see for the entire 90 minutes? Of all the gimmicks that I’ve encountered in my movie-watching history, this is one of the most intriguing. The trailers for Buried were varied in quality, designed to try to draw people into seeing it by either not showing much, or through simple misdirection. Now that I’ve finally seen the finished product, I can say that Buried is an overall success, not to mention one of the most intense viewing experiences I’ve ever sat through.
Before we go any further, can I just go ahead and say in advance that any critic who uses the phrase “claustrophobic thriller” in reference to this film deserves a punch in the throat.
I digress. Buried has perhaps the simplest plot I can recollect. Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a truck driver working under contract to deliver food an supplies in Iraq. His convoy drives over an IED, and is then attacked by insurgents. None of this is shown, but rather explained over the course of the film, because the film starts off with Conroy waking up trapped in a wooden coffin, buried under the sand. Escape is not possible. His oxygen supply is limited. And that’s it.
Of course, that isn’t really all there is. Conroy has a few items to help him. A cell phone, although all of the characters are in Arabic and the battery is waning. A Zippo lighter with an unknown amount of fuel left. But not much else. Over the course of the film, Conroy must deal with a nameless voice on the phone who demands a ransom that he surely cannot come up with, navigate a soul-crushingly labyrinthine bureaucracy in an effort to find someone who will both believe him and help him, and try to make contact with his family. It sounds like an impossible project, turning this simple series of telephone calls, all while tightly focused on a single person in a tiny environment, into a workable film. To this end, director Rodrigo Cortes and screenwriter Chris Sparling should be commended, because Buried succeeds on a number of levels.
First, however, is the question of Ryan Reynolds himself. I’ve consistently enjoyed his brand of smarmy, clever rakishness, but up until now I’d yet to see him actually act. With the possible exception of his turn in Definitely, Maybe, he’s rarely had to inject much seriousness into his roles. Buried will change that perception, because his gritty portrayal of Paul Conroy is near perfect. His level of desperation, slowly staggering towards despair, is so harrowing that there are moments where I almost felt short of breath myself. Reynolds abandons all of his crooked grins and toothy smiles in favor of a depiction of a man who is completely wracked with terror, impotent rage, and frustration. Whether he’s wordlessly screaming in misery or quietly trying to collect himself to think clearly and communicate as best as he can to the voices on the phone, Reynolds sells Paul Conroy beautifully.
This is all aided by Cortes’ well-crafted camera work, which presents a wholly unique set of challenges to a director. Keeping the entire focus of a film in a 7’x3’ box presents a complex conundrum, but Cortes executes the film with a deftness and visual flair that works… most of the time. Because Paul is constantly shifting around, writhing and twisting as he works through his dilemma, the cameras aren’t fixed, but instead they fluidly move around the box, grazing over the length of his grimy, bleeding form, eventually giving the viewer a full appreciation of every crack and stone in the coffin. At the same time, there are moments of painful and nerve-wracking silence, accented by complete and utter darkness, that provide an element of gut-clenching tension and are used just sparingly enough to compliment the flickering light that is keeps Paul tethered to some sense of sanity. There was only one moment where the cinematography failed — as Paul is sinking deeper into misery, the camera inexplicably floats up, well beyond the confines of the tiny space, to give a wide shot of his full body as he curls up. It’s clearly intended to convey his sense of loneliness in his darkest moment, but instead, by removing us from the tight space of the box, it takes you out of the experience. A minor quibble overall, however.
As for the story itself, suffice it to say that it contains a level of depth and intelligence that I didn’t expect. Delving into the more twisted and murky political elements, as well as touching upon some surprising ethical questions, it cleverly manages a subtle critique as it tells its story. The few other players in the film — Paul’s family, the UN hostage specialist who he eventually tries to help him, and the gratingly officious and heartless HR director of his company (voiced with horrible brilliance by the wonderful Stephen Toblowsky), are all used sparingly — just enough to give more movement to the story and preventing it from lapsing into stasis.
Buried is a unquestionably an uncommonly fascinating picture. It takes an unusual gimmick and infuses it with a deep and complex story, a daunting task given the constraints that the director and writer placed on themselves. Reynolds finally breaks loose of his lovably glib, wiseass roots and proves that there’s more to him than a bright grin and a set of abs, and instead becomes Paul Conroy, completely leaving his prior generic characterizations behind. Yet as impressive as Reynolds’ portrayal is, Rodrigo Cortes’ innovative direction is equally remarkable, making Buried something that is desperately lacking in modern cinema — a well-crafted, unflinching, and original film.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.