Directed by Rodrigo Cortés.
Starring Ryan Reynolds.
Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), an American contractor working in Iraq, wakes to find himself buried alive inside a wooden coffin, somewhere in the desert. With only a mobile phone and a lighter, he must work out why he has been buried and more importantly, how he can get out alive. Time (not to mention oxygen and battery life), is running out.
Director Rodrigo Cortés’ intent with Buried was to fully immerse the audience in the living nightmare Paul Conroy is subjected to. In an interview for MTV he stated, “This is not a film to be seen but a film to be experienced….It’s a physical and sensorial experience.”
And practically straight from the beginning, that’s what we get. After a well designed short title sequence, we are plunged into darkness. It’s not just a fade in, it’s a literal cut to black that stays there. We join Paul as he wakes – bound and gagged in utter darkness. The screen stays black. We hear him move around, confusion turning to panic as he begins to realise where he is. Eventually finding a lighter, we are given the first views of Paul’s prison exactly as he does, with flickering light illuminating one side of the coffin, then another, and another until both ourselves and Paul realise that he is trapped. Buried alive, in a coffin, somewhere in the desert.
The most overwhelming element for both Paul and the audience, and the element the success of the film rides on, is the crushing claustrophobia of being buried alive. A number of impressive components contribute to this sensation, the main one being the stunning camerawork. Cinematographer Eduard Grau is truly the star of Buried, utilising tight angles, swift but slight pans, POV shots and even some crash zooms to give the sense that we, like Paul are trapped inside the box. Every single shot bar one is totally realistic, giving the impression that the camera is actually inside the coffin, like we are suffering with him. The one exception is a stunning pan back that captures Paul’s isolation as the camera moves back and back from him, moving up high above him as if he was stranded at the bottom of a deep well, darkness surrounding him, waiting to swallow him whole.
Extremely effective also is the fact that not a single shot is of the outside world (except for a brief dream sequence). No shots above ground, of the people Paul speaks to, nothing. This was a conscious and inspired decision by Cortés, who explained himself in the production notes, “Had we emerged into the light, maybe showing a solitary answer-phone in the hallway of a house bathed in morning sunlight….we would have only succeeded in making a big film much smaller, a classy film much cheaper.”
Equally impressive is the sound design, conveying the utter silence around the box – Paul’s panicked movements thumping and scraping round the coffin, the vibration of the mobile phone deafeningly amplified by the wood and Paul’s screams echoing right back at him. On occasion explosions or movement is heard above ground, but these sounds are so muffled, so distant as to only increase Paul’s sense of complete isolation.
These aspects would all be for nothing if Ryan Reynolds could not deliver in the acting department. Thankfully, he goes above and beyond with what must be the most emotionally exhausting and downright brilliant performance of his career. We completely engage with the trapped Paul as he catapults from one extreme emotion to the other; anger, fear, confusion, sadness, panic, elation and eventual acceptance, all portrayed genuinely and believably by a stunning Reynolds. The empathy we feel for the character put us right there in the coffin with him.
You would expect a film set in Iraq to be moderately political, at least as a premise. It’s satisfying then, that the film is so critical of the US government’s involvement in Iraq throughout its short ninety minute runtime, confident to ask some questions and smart enough to make the audience ask some themselves. War affecting civilians is given a relatable angle by having an American civilian the victim of a war he claims he has nothing to do with. However his Iraqi captor blames him, just as western media frequently blames ALL Iraqis, tars all the residents of the country with the label of ‘terrorist’. War affects all, civilian or soldier alike and obviously, not all Iraqis are terrorists. This is highlighted when Paul calls his kidnapper a terrorist, to which he replies, ‘Terrorist? Why I terrorist?’ They are all simply victims of war, driven to desperate measures to save themselves and their families.
The misguided concerns of the US government are also criticised, the agent he speaks to is against him making a hostage video (as demanded by his captor) because the video will be leaked to the media and tarnish their appearance. Paul asks them why they don’t care about him, and his plea carries the weight of scores of dead servicemen, civilians and innocents.
Paul receives a phone call from the company he works for, who coldly tell him he has been fired for breach of conduct, obviously a story they’ve invented so they may wash their hands of him, protecting their reputation but also relinquishing any responsibility to Paul and his family. Doing this just so they may avoid giving Paul’s family any insurance money holds a mirror up to the US’s involvement in the Iraq war, suggesting that their interests were purely financial, seeking to take Iraq’s oil reserves for it’s own.
A clever dream sequence that features Paul being rescued convey his utter desperation, and the realisation that he is hallucinating hits both us and him with such an emotional punch that his only reaction is to fade into acceptance. A great visual metaphor for his fading life and hope occurs when Ryan places the almost-spent zippo on his chest. As the fuel runs out so too does Paul’s hope, the flame extinguishing, just as his life ultimately will do the same. Events towards the film’s conclusion rekindle this dead hope, but I won’t spoil the ending. Needless to say, it’s simply stunning.
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