Like Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark — a 90-minute tour of Russia's Hermitage museum done in a single take — director Rodrigo Cortés' harrowing Buried poses a formal challenge that adventurous moviegoers might find irresistible. If you didn't know already, Cortés' film is shot entirely inside of a coffin (well, seven coffins, actually, depending on the day's shooting schedule). How cool is that? Fortunately, there's more to this film. Lots more, in fact; would you believe that this gimmick actually oversimplifies one of the best horror/suspense films of the year?
Cortés' film begins with 90 seconds of a black screen punctuated by a series of grunts, wheezes, scratches, and kicks. Every sigh and heaving breath pops on the soundtrack, which simultaneously confirms the titular nightmare about to unfold while letting you know that Buried is a film of impressive formal control that stresses listening as much as seeing. A few flicks of a Zippo lighter later, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) discovers that he's in a pine box, along with a cell phone and some other items. As Conroy searches for a way out, the power bars on the phone and Conroy's oxygen supply start to drain away. And then the phone starts to ring, inaugurating a clever and surprisingly complex plot.
Cortés stays within the confines of his one location for the most part, although there are two noteworthy moments when he pulls his camera way back to underline the hopelessness of Conroy's situation. But the otherwise assiduous spatial integrity of the film ensures that the claustrophobic, oppressive mood never lifts. And within this limited space there's still room for some ingenious lighting changes, courtesy of the Zippo, cell phone, a flashlight, and some glow sticks.
The limited space and limited subject matter has the paradoxical effect of heightening one's attention to what's onscreen; like Conroy, we're hyper-vigilant throughout the crisis. Reynolds, a good-looking, fast-talking, energetic actor, holds the movie together with his face, his voice, and his innate intelligence. His dialogue is terrific, too; certain desperate mantras ("Don't do this! ... Don't do this?") are among his finest moments as an actor.
We gradually learn that Conroy is a civilian truck driver in Iraq whose convoy was attacked. This revelation entails some generalized lamentations about the Iraq war which pale in comparison to the film's larger argument concerning the human cogs in the great military-industrial machine. Through Conroy's increasingly futile cell-phone interactions with government officials, private contractors, and hostage negotiators, Cortés and screenwriter Chris Sparling repeatedly show that average guys mean nothing to large organizations.
At first, the absurdity of Conroy's early conversations with 911, 411, his company's HR department, and the Hostage Working Group are mordantly funny — Conroy is constantly being put on hold and told that he needs to calm down. But any laughs seem like a waste of breath as the film builds to a tense, emotionally draining final act, where Conroy's hopes for rescue brighten and flicker as the ssssssssssh of sand seeping through the wooden planks grows louder.
Opening Friday, October 15th
Studio on the Square