The concept of Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried is one that is inherently simple and yet has only really been attempted for short periods of time within any one narrative. Buried Alive (and its sequel) did it in the ‘90s. Quentin Tarantino did it twice, once in Kill Bill Vol.2, the other in his two-part CSI episode Grave Danger. But never has it been committed to as much as it is in Buried.
The film takes place entirely within the confines of a coffin, with its occupant being an American contractor, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), who has been kidnapped, buried alive and held for ransom. Paul only has a lighter and a cell phone with him. His captors want $5 million by 9:00pm or else they’ll leave him to die.
On paper the idea of setting an entire movie (which runs at over 90 minutes) completely inside a coffin seems ludicrous. How can an idea like that be sustained for a full-length feature, how can that possibly be compelling, engaging or at the very least interesting?
Buried has this doubt going against right off the bat. However, Cortés manages to ring more tension, fear and dread out of the premise than I thought was possible. First off it puts you right in there with Paul, almost as if you’re lying in the coffin with him (some stylistic and dramatic directorial techniques sometimes even make you believe you’re the only one in the coffin). “How would I react to this situation?” is the question that immediately pops into your head and never leaves. Claustrophobes need not apply.
Apart from the voices of the people Paul manages to call the film is a one-man-show by Reynolds and it really gives him the opportunity to show his acting talent. Reynolds gives an award-worthy performance, really helping to sell the fact that this guy is simultaneously scared out of his mind but also smart and in control of what he has to work with (remembering some important phone numbers, figuring out how to turn his body within the tight space and so forth). I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear his name being read out come Oscar nomination time.
There are undoubtedly weaknesses to be found, but most of them are as a result of necessity to move things forward rather than big plot holes that the writer or director simply forgot about. For instance it is never really explained how Paul is able to get reception on his phone considering he’s buried under more than a few feet of sand (it’s particularly baffling how he’s able to reach a number in the U.S. when he’s in Iraq). Nor is the issue of his oxygen level dealt with in any great detail (even if it does get mentioned). But overall these are relatively minor things that, as I say, are there in order to build tension or move things forward and if you accept them within the context of the story they really become non-issues.
There are various different techniques or plot devices used to keep the tension cranked and your attention seized: The battery life on the phone slowly running down one bar at a time; the signal cutting in and out randomly; the people on his phone either not believing his kidnapping story or being less than helpful once they’re convinced; and of course the overall question of, “Will he get out of that coffin alive?”
As the audience we’re right there with Paul all the way, thankfully never leaving the confines of the wooden box to (for example) watch the government try to locate him or his family worried sick at home as other movies so often (annoyingly) do. The film buries you right with Paul and subjects you not only an effective feeling of claustrophobia even as you’re just sitting there watching (helped a lot by the unpredictable musical score) but the emotions of having to watch this poor guy suffer.
Cortés has taken a premise that seems like it would run out of steam fairly quickly and manages to sustain it very well for 90+ minutes. You don’t see this type of film often, especially one with such conviction to its premise and such a strong performance to carry it, so embrace it while you can. Everyone has a fear of being buried alive to one degree or another – experiencing this film is the closest thing to the reality you’re going to get without actually doing it for real.