One man, one coffin and 90 minutes’ oxygen, Rodrigo Cortés Buried is a deliciously claustrophobic one-hander for Ryan Reynolds. But can Cortés play by the rules?
Living In A Box by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. And there’s none simpler than Rodrigo Cortés’s underground thriller Buried, in which Ryan Reynolds is buried alive in the Iraqi desert with only 90 minutes of oxygen and a mobile phone for company. It’s pitch black when Paul Conroy comes to, his frenetic breathing setting the pace and sending us reeling round a rollercoaster of emotions as he exhausts his address book getting himself rescued. With its average Joe American hero caught in the crossfire and buried up to his neck in a ‘situation’ he doesn’t fully understand, there’s a political frisson to Paul’s heart-stopping plight. And as the sands of time run out on our hapless hero, the desert too lends a rising tension, turning the trucker’s coffin literally into a drowning hourglass. But it’s not all so apposite. And sometimes Buried gets itself in a fix it just doesn’t know how to get out of.
From the opening titles with its Saul Bass style kinetic typography and Bernard Herrmann-esque musical stirrings, the influence of the grand master of suspense is clear. Even the man-buried-alive concept is very Hitchcockian, and with this contract trucker from Youngstown, Ohio it’s The Wrong Man par excellence. Hitchcock was the ultimate pioneer, setting himself cinematic challenges like one-cut Rope or one-location Lifeboat, formalistic exercises to set pulses racing. And it’s a legacy that resonates to this day in recent one-man thrillers like Duncan Jones’ Moon or indeed Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried. Only this young pretender is no 21st century Hitchcock. Sadly. We may experience the heat, claustrophobia and panic of Paul Conroy’s grisly jam, but the tension unwinds like a falling shower curtain.
And it’s not Ryan Reynolds’ fault either, who does a great job of making the young family man caught in a green zone gold rush, both likable and desperately believable. He manages to eke out virtually every emotion in the actor’s handbook during the course of the film, with only limited light sources to shine in. And over the course of 90 minutes, we see every inch of his face from every angle, from spooked Blair Witch eyes to beading drops of sweat and a few baffling stubble close-ups. There’s a gallows humour too as he ploughs through automated phone mazes and sarcastic switchboard operators with everyman irritation, calling everyone from the FBI to Directory Enquiries to try to get himself unburied.
But in the end, Cortés doesn’t quite know whether to make it a black comedy, a war film or an action movie. So he does all three, veering flatfootedly between anti-corporate jibes, Iraq War critique and a conveyor belt of catastrophes. Including black mambas, fire and self-mutilation. It’s Snakes In A Coffin meets Saw; a curious pile-up of worsening perils when surely being buried alive is enough. The anti-war message is brashly infodumped in an unusually conversational chat with commander of the Hostage Working Group, Dan Brenner. And while Conroy’s after-the-fact pre-emptive dismissal might elicit a few laughs, there’s a very human feeling of abandonment that goes tragically underexplored.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t poignant moments too. Like Conroy’s United 93-style phone call, a touching farewell to his Parkinsons-afflicted mother. Desperate for a comforting voice and bawling when she can’t deliver it, his needy hopelessness almost breaks the screen. Or his conversations of desperate hope with his wife Linda or his heartbreakingly humble last will and testament, it’s a glimpse of what could have been, the human heart of Buried buried under anxious overstory and cold-feet pyrotechnics.
In the end, Cortés’ histrionic attempts to keep turning the screw are Buried‘s downfall. With his invasive musical refrains and his pans up, across and outside the coffin, Cortés dispels all tension, literally going beyond the fourth wall of his pine box. Despite excellent cinematography by A Single Man‘s Eduard Grau, he overeggs his pudding, like a junked-up Hitchcock on amphetamines, breaking his own rules and soiling the purity of his elegantly simple idea. With a bathetic final-reel twist and a whole pit of unmined human emotion, Cortés is his own Saboteur, running through an empty cornfield chased by a relentless MacGuffin of his own making.
Buried is released in the UK on 29th September 2010.