For several seconds after the opening credits of Buried have ended, the screen is dark, the soundtrack silent. Director Rodrigo Cortés holds that empty screen for as long as he can, and then he keeps holding it; we lean forward, peering into the darkness, straining our ears for any sound that will punctuate the stillness. (It's a brilliant, if risky, tool for focusing an audience.) Finally, thankfully, there is a quiet cough, then breathing, breathing which becomes more panicked in the darkness. As Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes from a blackout, bound and gagged, he lights his Zippo and realizes what has happened. He's been buried alive.
Conroy is a contractor in Iraq, a truck driver for a company that (he stresses at one point) is not Blackwater. His convoy was ambushed by a band of insurgents; many of his co-workers were killed. He has been placed in a rickety old wood coffin and buried somewhere in Iraq, who knows where; he's got his Zippo and his flask, and his abductors have left a Blackberry, which they use to inform him that he is being held for ransom. They don't seem concerned that he can also call for help, because no one can help him.
Cortés tells Paul's story in (basically) real time, the 90 minutes or so he's got until his phone battery, Zippo, and air all run out. So it is the tale of a man trapped, in a seemingly impossible situation, who must keep his wits about him and focus on his own possible survival, slim though his odds may be. The challenge that Cortés places on himself (and on screenwriter Chris Sparling) is borderline masochistic: he stays inside that 2'x7' box with Conroy for the entirety of the picture. No prologues, no flashbacks, no cutaways, nothing but what is happening right there in that moment, pushed in, pressed up, squished like a vice.
Those restrictions were not imposed by director Danny Boyle on his similarly-themed 127 Hours, which Buried had the misfortune to accompany into the fall marketplace and watch snatch up all of the attention, critical kudos, and box office mojo. This is not to imply that Boyle's is the lesser film; both are terrific, though in very different ways. 127 Hours uses its central situation, grisly and unfortunate though it may be, to tell a story that is ultimately positive and life-affirming. Buried is like the B-movie potboiler take, stripping out the good vibes and amping up the blunt tension of the thing. 127 Hours ultimately soars; Buried burrows through the dirt and sand, bitter little mother that it is. One approach is not necessarily better than the other; they're different, and equally valid.
Sparling's clever screenplay seems to think through every possible action and reaction, and then push two steps ahead; he's playing three-dimensional chess, and if there are holes in the logic or progression of events, I didn't see them. The script only really falters once, in the phone call with an HR rep (voiced by Stephen Tobolowsky), which stretches credibility to score easy political points (the point of the scene is worth making, but needs more finessing than this). Cortés, like Hitchcock in Lifeboat, embraces the claustrophobia of the situation and bears down on it, endlessly brewing up oblique angles and ingenious camera tricks. Of particular note is his use of the push-in, which is used so skillfully and smoothly as to eschew the phrase "zoom"--his camera operates like it is on short tracks, snapping in to place tighter and tighter on Paul's face, bang-bang-bang, as he pleads with the State Department to help him, just help him, please God.
That scene, and countless others, are also given tremendous aid by Victor Reyes's score, which is a real pulse-pusher (it's hard to make a man trying to get a cell signal thrilling, but damned if they don't do it). The music isn't overdone, though--witness the terrifying moment when Paul realizes he's sharing the coffin with a snake, a moment played in total quiet, and all the more terrifying for it.
Reynolds, the only face on screen for the entire 90+ minutes, gives an unassuming, matter-of-fact, and ultimately effective performance. He isn't handed an abundance of Big Moments (only one, really, which he handles well), and doesn't manufacture any to show off. He is mostly required to be present and believable, and does both jobs handily. A role like this is a kind of endurance test for an actor; Reynolds holds our interest, hits every beat with skill, and (most importantly) draws our empathy. We don't know much about this guy, and we don't have to. What matters is that we believe that he's in that box, and we're in there with him.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
When Quentin Tarantino buried The Bride alive in Kill Bill Volume 2, he memorably changed the aspect ratio from 2.35:1 to 1.33:1, so as to "box on" his heroine. Cinematographer Eduard Grau goes in the other direction, using the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to replicate the shape of the coffin location, and gets more effective results. The MPEG-4 AVC transfer, meanwhile, is terrific; much of the picture takes place in varying degrees of darkness and shadows, but there's never a strain for clarity--the black levels are thick and inky, the shadows rich and textured. Color saturation is restrained but impressive; different sections are nearly monochromatic, depending on Paul's changing sources of light (the orange of his Zippo flames, the blue of the Blackberry display, the green of a glowstick, the red of a dying flashlight), but all are well-rendered. Detail work is also strong, with every bead of sweat, every hair on his face, every grain of dirt in that beat-up old coffin crisp and lifelike.
The English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also first-rate, inventively utilizing the entire soundscape while keeping the effects in tight to heighten the claustrophobia. Dialogue is clean and clear, but the buzzing of the Blackberry, the kicking of his feet, and (later) the shifting of the surrounding sand are ingeniously shifted to the surrounds, creating a real sense of placement within that tiny box. The LFE channel also gets a couple of unexpected kicks, and the score is powerful without over-powering.
A French 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also available, as are English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles.
Alas, only one bonus feature of note. "Unearthing Buried" (17:59) is a well-assembled look at the making of the film, mixing an abundance of behind-the-scenes footage (day-to-day shooting, creation of the coffins, developing the props) with crew and cast (all one of them) interviews. It's formulaic but enjoyable--particularly Reynolds's heartfelt thanks to the crew on the last day of shooting.
Aside from that, there's merely a Teaser Trailer (1:14), the Theatrical Trailer (1:30), additional Lionsgate Trailers, and the LG-Live option, which (contain your enthusiasm) includes Twitter and Facebook integration.
Buried was financed and shot in Cortés's native Spain--you can't help but notice the abundance of Latin surnames in the opening credits. There's also little doubt that it wasn't borne of Hollywood by the time it reaches its jaw-dropper of an ending. Buried is a tough film--harrowing, tense, uncompromising. It works its audience up, and it wrings them out.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.