90 minutes in a box. That is one way to describe Buried, directed by Rodrigo Cortes and starring the much-maligned Ryan Reynolds.
As the title implies, the film centres upon Paul (Ryan Reynolds), a US truck driver in Iraq who is attacked and wakes up to find himself buried alive inside a coffin. After coming to terms with his less than spacious surroundings, Paul has 90 minutes’ worth of oxygen in which to find a way out but only a phone and a lighter as tools to help.
The premise is so simple it is hard to imagine that it could ever amount to more than the sum of its parts… but it does. Allow me to explain why.
Ryan Reynolds – his best performance?
Mr. Reynolds has taken a lot of flak in recent times. Notwithstanding his leading-man good looks, notable flops such as Green Lantern (2011) and R.I.P.D. (2013) have seen his stardom wane. After seeing Buried, you may conclude that the answer to harnessing this man’s potential is to lock him up in close quarters or force him to endure some other form of mortal peril that will induce captivating leading-man symptoms.
Anyone who doubts that the Canadian has what it takes to carry a film by himself need look no further than Buried. Reynolds is the sole physical presence throughout the entire duration of the film. The camera never leaves him and the only interaction his character has with the outside world is via a mobile phone.
Reynolds brilliantly conveys the paralysing fear with which any sane human being would be gripped if they found themselves in such a predicament. His emotions range wildly from panic to calm, terror to acceptance, hope to resignation. Whilst it is not a traditional awards-worthy performance, you will have a hard time finding a more realistic and believable portrayal of a man in dire straits.
Fresh from its success at the London Film Festival in 2013, Locke, starring Tom Hardy, was held up as an example of bold filmmaking. Critics marvelled at director Steven Knight’s ability to hold suspense throughout the film, despite the camera never moving from the car driven by Hardy.
Rodrigo Cortes was arguably more daring and inventive three years earlier. He managed to render a story focused on one man stuck in a box for 90 minutes not only interesting but electrifying. The opening sequence is one of extraordinary ambition. The screen is black. All we hear is the sound of panic steadily rising in Paul’s voice as his situation dawns on him.
This is elemental cinema at its finest. Cortes takes his time. He allows the full horror of the scenario to be painfully imagined in pitch blackness. We are given no explanation for Paul’s predicament and are accordingly thrown into the coffin with him. This creates a bond between audience and character, allowing us to empathise with his peril and will him to find a way out of it.
Rarely has darkness been used so effectively in recent memory. The only illumination for the film is provided by the cigarette lighter left in Paul’s possession, which is not always the most reliable of appliances.
By the end of the film the camera has been trained on Reynolds from every conceivable angle. As such, even those watching this film in the comfort of their own homes cannot help but experience a sense of clawing claustrophobia.
Better than 127 Hours?
A few months after Buried reached cinemas came another film in which confined spaces played a significant part. Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours recounts the gruelling true story of Aron Ralston’s ordeal in a remote canyon. When his arm becomes trapped beneath a fallen boulder Ralston – portrayed by James Franco – is forced to take drastic action to save his life.
Like Buried, the camera spends most of its time examining the central figure of the film, charting his ups and downs, his struggles and ultimate redemption. The film went on to garner a considerable amount of awards attention at the 2011 Academy Awards, with Franco receiving a nomination for Best Actor.
Yet in many respects Buried is a superior film. Whilst 127 Hours is a character piece, chiefly concerned with the redemptive quality of the human spirit, Buried is a B-movie thriller with a twist – it takes place exclusively in a box six feet underground. Yet the thrill ride does not come at the expense of character development. What’s more, Buried is far more effective at conveying what it would be like to endure a confined space for a prolonged period of time.
Normally with films that deserve a second chance it is about highlighting the good points from films which have received a bad rap. In this case Buried has simply been forgotten, overshadowed by films such as 127 Hours and Locke which also dealt with the struggles of characters in a confined space. Neither of these, however, is as effective at drawing the audience into the action. Buried is a modern day B-movie classic, showcasing Ryan Reynolds’ talents on a small, but nerve-shredding, scale.