Sundance 2010 Review: BURIED

by: James Wallace
September 23rd, 2010

Editor's Note: This review was originally published on January 24 as a Sundance Film Festival review.

Rating: 9/10

Writer: Chris Sparling
Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Cast: Ryan Reynolds

BURIED stars Ryan Reynolds as contract driver Paul Conroy who, while working in Iraq, finds himself mysteriously buried alive in a coffin after he is knocked unconscious in an insurgent attack on his convoy. And in a MacGyver-esque twist, he is armed with nothing more than a lighter, a cell phone, and the will to fight for his life.

But time is running out for Paul, as he must race against the clock to find someone to pay his ransom of 5 million dollars before 9 PM, or he will be left to suffer a horrible fate below the Earth.

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS POSSIBLE SPOILERS. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK!

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS POSSIBLE SPOILERS. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK!

The very idea of the film raises a few questions in itself. The most prominent being, “How does one (director, actor, and/or writer) maintain suspense, belief, and general interest for 94 minutes when the film takes place entirely in a 84 by 28 by 23 inch pine box?" Most would assume with flashbacks of the attack, cut-aways to people Paul talks to on the phone, and other conventional methods of exposition. But no. No flashbacks. No cut-aways. No conventions.

Instead, director Rodrigo Cortés, with the help of a brilliantly written - and once infamously blacklisted – script by writer Chris Sparling, never lets up on the tension, building it and building it with moments of sheer panic-causing devices (for both the character and the audience). In short, everything that could go wrong for Paul pretty much does.

The film is shot as beautifully as it is confined; being completely lit by the natural light that Paul has himself (whether it be Zippo, glow sticks, cell phone light, and a shifty flashlight). You feel as if you are right there, in the enclosed space with Paul, feeling as claustrophobic and panic-ridden he feels. Furthermore, agreeing and finding logic with his every choice, despite a few obvious logic problems. Sure, you can apply the old “Why is she running upstairs when she should be running out the door?” logic of horror and suspense films here. “Why is he doing this? Why is he not doing that? Why is he not calling this person?” But, I pose this question…have you ever been buried alive in a coffin by terrorists? Didn’t think so…but if you ever are, BURIED is a pretty good field guide on how to handle the situation.

And just as Paul handles it as well as can be expected given his unfortunate predicament, Ryan Reynolds plays the character as perfectly as one could play someone stuck…well, you know. With such a belief and intensity, yet glints of tension-filled humor, that he’s the only actor you can think of wanting to watch in a dark box for an hour and thirty-four minutes. So much so that there are moments in the well-balanced comedic and dramatic actor’s struggle that you wish you yourself could go find him and dig him up. Yes, it is that hard to watch at times, as Paul begins to give up at times, yet presses on, holding out for the hope that he will be rescued.

What makes this so hard is that you know all along that you can’t rescue Paul. And that no one can and will. And that he knows this ultimately. As this situation realistically plays out many times in this post-9/11 era, hostages of this war on terror seldom, if ever, are rescued. But that doesn’t stop you, or Paul, from having hope, no matter how hopeless you soon find the situation to be.

What doesn’t help the film, or Paul’s situation, is that it has not one, but two moments of false hope in its conclusion. One, the first and unnecessary, takes away from the other, the second and gut-wrenchingly fitting. It doesn’t ruin the film (just like I won’t for you by divulging specifics) but it certainly hinders the surprise of the untimely finale.

As a side note, other arguments against the film heard round Sundance have been in reference to cell battery life, cell range, cell tracking and cloning, Paul’s oxygen supply, etc. To this I acknowledge but at the same time refute. That’s like posing the argument that JAWS isn’t believable because a shark like that doesn't exist and wouldn't behave in such a way. Or that you couldn't take the shark on without a bigger boat. Without these liberties and devices, this wonderful movie wouldn’t have been possible. And that is exactly what it is. A movie. And a near perfect one, despite a few logic problems and plot holes here and there.

That does not mean that this film is not a complete and utter accomplishment in cinema across the board, on all levels of filmmaking from direction to cinematography to writing to acting to editing. It is minimalist filmmaking at its best, stripping away all convention, returning the currently-fleeting suspense genre to its Hitchcockian roots. From its commentary on government, terrorism, corporate greed, and the endurance of the human mind, BURIED keeps you completely immersed for every single second of its 94 minute runtime, never leaving the box it takes place in but always thinking outside of it.

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