Friday, October 8, 2010

Buried (***)

Directed by Rodrigo Cortés


It takes some serious sack to pull off a film like Buried. On the surface, it just seems like a giant, suspense film gimmick - even its throwback poster seems more like homage then actual serious filmmaking. An entire film taking place in a claustrophobic coffin, and all we see is one man with a lighter, a flashlight, and a cell phone. Doesn't seem like it works, but it does here, thanks to a great performance from Ryan Reynolds and creative, at times innovative work from director Rodrigo
Cortés, cinematographer Eduard Grau, and music composer Victor Reyes.

The plot is deceptively simple. Paul Conroy (Reynolds) is an American contractor working in Iraq in 2006. He wakes up in a wooden coffin, with only inches of space in each direction. He's bound and gagged, but he's able to get out of them pretty quickly and effortlessly. All he has is his zippo lighter to light the inside. He tries to punch and fight his way out at first, but he recognizes rather soon that all of that is futile. He begins to notice small grains of sand seeping through the cracks in the wood, and he realizes that he's underground. The stress of it causes him to have an explosion of hysteria, while attempting more pointless escape attempts.

But the story kicks in when he notices a cell phone ringing by his feet. He kicks the phone up to his head and begins calling various people: his wife, his boss, the FBI. Occasionally, he's able to speak to someone who can offer him very little help. More often, he's only able to get someone's voice mail, leaving panicked messages without a contact number. He gets a call from an Iraqi man demanding $5 million in less than two hours in order to get him out and Paul scrambles to see how he can accomplish that. He begins talking to another man who's responsible for rescuing hostages overseas, but this man says that there is no negotiating with terrorists. Paul's paranoia begins to grow as Brenner searches for him unsuccessfully and Jabir continues to give him threatening phone calls.

A movie like this only works if you get a virtuoso performance from your lead actor, and that's exactly what Buried gets from Ryan Reynolds. I highly doubt that Reynolds spent the entirety of filming in a tiny wooden coffin, but watching the film you would think that he has. His performance encompasses high anxiety and yet has a stubborn wherewithal to keep you interested for an hour and a half. We understand his flare-ups and empathize with his occasional lack of tact. I've always liked Reynolds despite his penchant for making films (Smokin' Aces, Blade Trinity, and Van Wilder) that I've thought were way below his talent level. But for anyone who's watched those performances have known that he's capable of greatness, and Buried is the first time we've seen that potential materialize.

Now, to be fair, this film is an actor's dream; it's a film totally dependent on your performance, and if you nail it, then you're bound to create something tremendous. It's easy to get caught up in the gimmick of the coffin, but you would never buy into it if Reynolds wasn't as good as he is. Not that the director,
Cortés, is not just as exceptional. As hard as it may seem to act inside a coffin the size of a pillbox, I imagine it would be just as hard to direct a film inside of one. The film sits at 95 minutes and it doesn't feel a second longer. With the help of cinematographer Eduard Grau, Cortés keeps the film moving both figuratively and literally. We are so far into Paul Conroy's point of view, that we ourselves feel the time ticking away, all the while still aware of the inventive shots that are spread throughout the film.

Cortés is careful to recognize his influences, as Alfred Hitchcock's fingerprints lay all over this film. Everything from the descending/ascending title sequence, to the manic Psycho-like score by Victor Reyes. While I'd never compare Buried to Vertigo or Rear Window anytime soon, I don't think Hitchcock ever visualized claustrophobia and panic as well as it's done here. It is really a brilliant display of suspense, since it never allows itself to relax. Even in its slower, more precise moments (a scene where Paul calls his Dementia-afflicted mother is particularly effective), the constant mania of the situation is always apparent and driving the film in a solid forward movement.

It's hard to write a lot about a film that has essentially one actual scene. But it may seem strange that after praising the film as mush as I have, that I only gave it three stars. Well, I have a very deliberate reason for that. SPOILER ALERT: This film would be damn near perfect if it weren't marred by a final three minutes that is more cruel to its audience then anything else I've ever seen. I don't mind somber endings, but when a filmmaker goes out of his way to manipulate the viewers' emotions for little more then his own amusement I simply get upset. I enjoyed the first eighty-five minutes of Buried more then I enjoyed most films that I've seen this year. I did not like the ending. That's right, I didn't like it that much.

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