Buried is essentially the indie-friendly version of a gimmick film – and the gimmick is a great one. The film spends its entire running time in a coffin with one character and never leaves that coffin for flashbacks or subplots. One can imagine William Castle looking on from the Great Beyond, smiling wistfully and wishing he’d thought of it back when he was making movies. Once you hear a premise like that, you just have to see if the filmmakers can pull it off. Did they succeed?
Well… yes and no.
But first, a plot summary. Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) awakens in darkness and quickly realizes he has been buried alive in a pine box-style coffin. He discovers he has a phone when he is contacted by the people who buried him and we learn he is an independent contractor in Iraq who was attacked by a group of terrorists. The terrorists want him to get them a ransom and also make videos (using the cell phone they have provided) to promote their cause.
Between fielding calls from his tormentors, Paul frantically tries to reach any and every person that can help him: his wife, the employers who sent him out there and a man who works with an agency dedicated to finding victims like Paul. To make matters worse, he’s got a short supply of oxygen and there’s a skirmish going on above ground that might cause his rickety coffin to collapse in on itself.
Sounds like a great setup for a tense thriller, right? Buried definitely fits that bill. Director Rodrigo Cortes milks the tension for all it is worth and shows a surprising amount of skill at getting the maximum amount of visual variety from the film’s confined setting: the camera never cheats by moving outside the coffin but Eduard Grau’s cinematography frantically moves through and around the spaces inside and around it, adjusting the level of tension by carefully manipulating how close we are to the terrified hero at any moment. Cortes also edited the film and his deft juxtaposition of the different angles he uses adds an extra layer of visceral punch.
Buried further benefits from a gutsy, intense performance by Reynolds. Though he interacts with other actors via their voices on the phone – Stephen Tobolowsky memorably cameos as an officious corporate type – the burden of carrying the film essentially rests on his shoulders. His everyman-style reactions to the situation convince and he plays out a veritable symphony of moods, covering everything from heartbreak to anger to dark humor. His ability to sell the character’s mounting desperation plays a crucial role in making the film as effective as it is.
And yet, Buried isn’t as satisfying as it should be despite these many assets. It’s the kind of film that plays well while you watch it but falls apart the moment you start thinking about it afterwards. The reason for this comes down to Chris Sparling’s script, which leans on the cleverness of its concept and gets sloppy when dealing with the details. The setup virtually flaunts its many contrivances right in the audience’s face – Reynolds never really seems in a danger of losing his oxygen despite this idea getting multiple mentions in the dialogue and his kidnappers put him in the coffin with an amazing amount of tools (a lighter, a flashlight, a cell phone, glowsticks, a knife). It’s also worth noting that the hero gets the better cell phone reception underground than most of us get in an open field.
However, these shortcuts could be forgiven if the narrative had a thorough, consistent quality to it – and this is another area where Buried comes up short. One moment it is a gimmicky thriller, the next moment it is a political commentary piece with Kafkaesque overtones and the moment after that it goes for heart-tugging melodrama. That’s an overload of themes and tonal shifts that this simple idea can’t handle. Buried is also annoyingly crude and obvious in its manipulations – as many reviewers have noted, a scene where Paul calls his mother is as shamelessly maudlin as it is poorly written. Finally, without getting into spoilers, the ending relies on a crass “gotcha” effect that may leave you wondering why you invested your time in this movie at all.
In short, Buried is a movie that will divide its audience. Reynolds’ performance and Cortes’ visceral direction are quite good and if you concentrate on those elements, they might be enough to pull you through. However, when all is said and done, it’s basically the arthouse version of Saw – a bunch of self-consciously clever (and underdeveloped) plotting conceits that ultimately lead nowhere.