Buried stars Ryan Reynolds as Paul Conroy a contract truck driver in Iraq who much to his own surprise wakes up from within the confines of an old wooden coffin buried an indeterminate depth underground. He doesn't immediately know who has kidnapped him or what he can do to try and get out; all he knows is that the clock is ticking and unless he can reach the outside world he is going to suffer a horrible death.
By most measures of common sense Buried should not be as a whole the harrowing film it is. That's not because it's directed and written by relative newcomers Rodrigo Cortes and Chris Sparling respectively nor is it because Reynolds lacks the power to anchor a film all his own. It's because Buried is a 95-minute movie that takes place entirely from within the confines of a coffin. By all expectations a movie that never leaves a space that's barely big enough to fit a human being should quickly run out of steam.
So how does director Cortes turn a film that takes place in such a tortuously small setting into a full-blooded feature that satisfies its run time? He starts with Reynolds as his centerpiece. For years the actor has been cultivating his presence as a handsome and charming leading man but here the camera doesn't care one bit about selling tickets based on showing off Reynolds' physical features. It's all about Reynolds' ability to make an audience understand his thought process feel his fear and share his panic as to whether or not he will ever see daylight again.
And though Reynolds has proven more than capable of showcasing rapid explosions and suppressions of heartfelt emotions it doesn't hurt that director Cortes from a logistical standpoint never gives the audience any reason to doubt his star's pain. It flat out looks like Reynolds was buried alive and someone somehow snuck a camera in to film it. Obviously that's what a film called Buried should look like but in an age of filmmaking where technology separates actors from the harms their characters face it's exciting to see a film that completely removes the illusion of a safety barrier between the two.
The first 15 minutes alone will no doubt induce uncomfortable squirming and nervous flinching at the sight of Reynolds trying fruitlessly to do well anything from inside his pitiful tomb. The opening of Buried should become a cinematic reference point for how to make audience members suffer claustrophobia simply by watching someone else trapped within its clutches. Unfortunately the rest of the film isn't quite as consistently riveting as its stellar opening.
From a technical standpoint Cortes is ahead of the curve throughout the entire film. That's why it's regrettable that Sparling's script occasionally gets in the way of Cortes and Reynolds' disconcerting ability to make the audience go through everything Paul is going through. When it's just Paul desperately trying to perform simple tasks like reaching a cell phone on the other side of the coffin Buried is phenomenal. It's when Sparling's script runs out of interior threats to throw at the man that things begin to teeter on the precarious edge between unforgettable tension and reluctant melodrama.
Paul's situation is already dire enough as it is to trap the audience in the coffin with him. Between cell phone battery life and simple concerns like whether his lighter is burning too much oxygen there's more than sufficient motivation to feel awful for Paul. So when Sparling finds ways for the people on the other end of the phone to needlessly (and sometimes implausibly) rain on his already crappy parade even more it comes across as a little too forced and breaks the illusion that Reynolds and Cortes have so fantastically maintained throughout.
Even with a few scripting missteps however Buried consistently manages to recoup its confidence and pull the audience back into caring about the situation at hand. The film's ability to do so is simply further testament to the strengths of Cortes as a detail-oriented director (cinematography sound design and score all combine together in subtle yet highly effective ways) and Reynolds as considerably more than just a handsome leading man. It's refreshing to see him dominate a range of emotions this daunting and there's little doubt that Buried will later be remembered as both a landmark film for the actor and a benchmark exercise in isolationist horror movies.