For better or worse, the entire film takes place inside the pine box, from the moment Paul wakes to the film’s conclusion. There are no flashbacks, memories, or quick-cuts to another locale. We are limited exclusively to what Paul can see and hear – never privy to actually viewing what’s happening elsewhere. For the most part, this works to great effect – the dark and quiet confines of the box make the faintest hint of the world above ground sing. At times, Cortés will pull back from the restrictions of the casket but only by stretching the dimensions of physical reality (one shot features the camera rising away from Reynolds’ face in a lengthy wooden mineshaft) – though it’s clear these moments are only for effect.
For the most part, Cortés succeeds in bringing the audience into the box with Paul – however, there are also times where the dimensions of the space seem inconsistent – which will certainly take viewers out of the carefully constructed experience.
While Paul is buried on his back in a standard pine box, on more than one occasion he attempts to turn entirely around (in order to reach something at his feet); however, it’s unclear (given the amount of vertical space in the box) why he would ever need to turn around, instead of merely bending his knees and scooting down. This might sound like a small detail, but a driving strength behind Buried is the concept: a film that takes place entirely in this limited space, which feels immersive and tense. Whenever the film chooses drama over the carefully constructed concept, it breaks the spell and may yank viewers out of the moment.
To the film’s detriment, Buried seems to require a constant stream of drama; even the most mundane moments are made dramatic (like turning around in the box) to keep the audience on the edge of their seats – asserting the omnipresent feeling of claustrophobia. However, at times, these same moments take us out of the experience because they don’t make sense, given the carefully established rules. As a result, the tension feels a bit manufactured at times – Paul’s clinical anxiety, which he manages with medicinal pills, is a glaring example (as if being stuck underground in a box weren’t enough). The inclusion of this character detail adds nothing to the film, except to serve as an excuse, should the audience feel as though this man, buried in a pine box several feet underground by kidnappers in a foreign country, isn’t polite enough to the people who are trying to help him.
In terms of narrative momentum, there are a couple of scenes that offer nothing more than manipulative filler – keeping the tension high until the next phone call comes from Brenner or the kidnapper. The most prominent example, involving an unwelcome intruder, was especially tacked-on (as if Paul doesn’t have enough to worry about). As uncomfortable and shocking as the encounter is, it offers little consequence to the larger story.
These tacked-on moments of tension wouldn’t be so glaring in a bigger, less controlled film, but Cortés has relied so heavily on his concept – never allowing us out of the box throughout the 90 minute runtime – that it’s hard to reconcile when the carefully controlled experience wavers.
This is the ultimate pitfall, and irony of the film: by attempting to make a movie that creates claustrophobia, Cortés ends up just as restricted as the main character, unable to break out of the confines of his movie concept. Paul often laments that he shouldn’t have overlooked the dangers of contract work in Iraq – that somewhere in the back of his mind he always knew he was in over his head – and it’s hard to resist wondering if at times Cortés didn’t feel the same way, trapped and fumbling around in the dark, searching for something to stoke the drama within the confines of the box he had built for himself.
Buried is a great experience for anyone interested in the concept or anyone who is willing to enjoy the ride. Both Reynolds and Cortés deserve credit for their ambition and, most of the time, their execution. While the film is far from perfect, and can at times lose traction, there are plenty of tense moments and there is enough powerful emotional drama to keep audiences invested in Paul’s life or death situation and riding the edge of their seats.
Buried is currently showing in select theaters but opens in wide release on October 8th.