Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Buried
Buried isn’t a big-budget comic book film or a 3D CGI extravaganza, but it’s still one of the most thrilling films of the year. Don’t let the simple “man in a box” concept fool you – director Rodrigo Cortés (The Contestant) utilizes a number of slick storytelling devices to portray a claustrophobic – and ultimately enjoyable – experience on film.
Despite Buried‘s upcoming wide release (on October 8th), and high-profile star (Ryan Reynolds), the movie is more indie-film than suspense thriller. The scope is extremely limited, with numerous close-ups on Reynolds’ blood-spattered face or awkward, angled shots focused on a dark corner of the pine box.
Reynolds gives a memorable performance as Paul Conroy, a U.S. Contractor working in Iraq who is kidnapped and buried alive inside a coffin as a form of ransom. Reynolds manages to set aside his normal quip and charm to give a more frantic and emotional performance. It’s certainly interesting to see the actor’s typically-energetic and charming personality reduced to laying in a pine box and being forced to convey 90 minutes worth of intense storytelling through mostly facial expressions in low-light.
The storyline is paced by a partially-charged cell phone Paul discovers buried alongside him. The cell phone’s low signal and limited battery ratchet up the tension, keeping Paul grounded in the confines of the box while still working to move the plot forward. Paul reaches out to various people for help: everyone from his wife, his employers, the FBI, as well as his kidnappers.
The kidnappers call often, each time bullying Paul with a variety of threats – coercing him to follow their instructions. Paul ultimately connects with Dan Brenner (Robert Paterson), a Special Forces agent tasked with finding kidnapped Americans in Iraq. Brenner’s primary piece of advice is to not give-in to the kidnapper’s threats – resulting in a number of tense moments where Paul is forced to balance his desperation to survive with his trust in Brenner (who is, after all, nothing more than a disembodied voice to Paul).
In general, a well-struck balance succeeds in keeping things moving – in spite of Paul’s inability to go anywhere. Cortés has done a masterful job, making all of the phone interactions authentic – as if there are real people on the other end of line, as Paul himself at one point notes, “Sitting in an air-conditioned cubicle.” The voice acting is organic – the disembodied voices react naturally to Paul’s situation, even if the reaction itself is frustrating to Paul (and highlights some people’s lack of sensibility).
There’s also a good mix of personalities on the other side of the conversations, offering a fresh set of interactions that never get stale. The juxtaposition of Paul’s life-and-death plight against the various “jobs” and responsibilities of the people on the other end of the line serve as one of the film’s greatest strengths, offering an immensely frustrating but authentic, and entertaining, experience. An interaction between Paul and a family friend, who reprimands Paul for his tone, is especially cathartic – proving that Cortés even managed to add a few glints of humor into a film fueled by the ever-present dwindling of battery power, oxygen, and Paul’s chances at escape.
The circumstances surrounding Paul’s abduction as well as the somewhat on-the-nose political discussions regarding Iraqi terrorism, American contractors, and the pitfalls of establishing democracy didn’t take too much of the spotlight away from the in-the-box-action and emotion. While it was important to touch on the context, at times it was hard to ponder the larger moral implications of the Iraq war while confined to such an intimate and intense personal struggle. By the time the credits roll, it’s clear these worldly events are the primary backdrop for Paul’s dilemma – and the carefully manufactured claustrophobia Cortés is attempting to impose on the audience.
Like any worthwhile high-concept film, Buried does a solid job of setting up the “rules” of the film. Paul is buried only a few feet below the ground, which means he gets decent, though spotty, cell-phone reception but cannot force his way out of the box. To keep the story grounded in the frantic search occurring outside of the box, the cell phone has been cloned (meaning it can’t be tracked by GPS alone), and the kidnapper’s motivation is kept simple – they want ransom money (of course, the U.S. has a policy against paying ransom for hostages). As a result, Paul’s only chance at survival rests in Brenner finding the kidnappers alive, so they can reveal Paul’s location.
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.