127 Hours, Lebanon, Frozen, Devil... Rodrigo Cortés’ thriller isn’t alone in tight-spot cinema right now, joining a survivalist squeeze of people stuck in tanks, in lifts or beneath boulders.
But where some of those films cheat constraints, Buried’s punch stems from how ferociously Cortés sticks to its plot: mounting a perverse ratio of minimised scale to maxed-out drama, he offers a convincing case for the theory that restraints can energise creativity.
No establishing shots, no stern-faced chaps doing terrorists’ DIY. After (tellingly) Hitchcock-nodding opening titles, the screen blackens and we’re slapped underground with Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), an American contractor in Iraq.
Plot details emerge organically from the situation, pulling us in with incremental stealth: Paul’s stuck in a coffin, his air’s running out, his truck was hit by insurgents, his captors want ransom money and the few items he’s been left with are there to help get that dough.
From these economical foundations, Buried builds resonances, seeding possibilities in its stripped-back set-up rather than railing against limitations. Conroy’s calls for help play out as blackly Kafkaesque comedy of corporate disinterest, modern irritations retooled for grim humour.
Chris Sparling’s script stings with plausible rage about the casualties of US/UK military campaigns, doing so without stooping to casting Conroy as simply innocent or heroic.
Key elements work double hard to tighten narrative and formal nuts’n’bolts while sustaining interest. the witty jabs in Sparling’s super-efficient script feel apposite: when a hostage pro tells Conroy they need to keep the situation contained, Conroy tersely reminds him that he’s contained enough already, ta, eliciting nervous laughter rather than comic relief.
Cinematographer Eduard Grau works eerie miracles with lighter flashes and phonescreen glows, where Conroy looks dead already.
As for Reynolds, he proves his previously percolating promise by plunging body and soul into Paul, emotions jack-knifing from panicky to enraged, sweary to distraught.
Should you wonder what fired him up, check out the short but impassioned disc extras, where Cortés describes reynolds’ injuries (“his back bleeding… his fingers literally fried”) and reveals that the 17-day shoot demanded 30-35 shots a day rather than the usual 10. And that’s with one actor.
Missteps are minor but telling. a visit from a reptile is schlocky; a confinement-busting backwards pan of impossible scale momentarily scuppers the claustrophobia. And the less said about underground mobile signals…
But Buried is suspenseful, urgent, propulsive and, even on a small screen, immersive when it bides by Cortés’ belief that a film this focused can feel “big not in spite of its elements, but because of them”.
Let’s hope nobody throws a budget at him next time.
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