Having generated strong buzz since its Sundance premiere at the start of the year, Buried arrives in the UK at the end of September refreshingly a week before its wide release in the States. If proof was needed of its credentials, it even managed to escape unscathed from a last-minute screening at last week’s FrightFest despite replacing one of the anticipated big guns in A Serbian Film. It can’t have been the easiest pitch to sell – asking the viewer to spend 90+ minutes in the company of just one man in a confined space – but thankfully it was sold to allow us to witness the claustrophobic brilliance of Rodrigo Cortés’ high-concept thriller.
The influence of Hitchcock is felt even before Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up in his enclosed coffin with just a mobile and a lighter to keep him company. From the Psycho-esque opening credits, we move seamlessly onto a rollercoaster ride of emotions packed full of Rope style single real-time shots creating the kind of atmosphere that the Master of Suspense himself would have been proud of. Cortés makes the crucial decision to not allow one bit of oxygen to seep into the picture to afford the audience a single iota of relief so we’re stuck in there suffocating along with Conroy and, thanks to the masterful sound mixing where everything is deadly silent apart from Conroy’s voice, we are constantly on the edge reacting to every slight noise we hear.
Understandably the suspense wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective, despite how well it’s crafted, if the main performance wasn’t up for scratch and Reynolds more than rises to the task. Consistently one of the most likeable screen presences even in dirge like The Proposal, Buried gives him a chance to flex his acting muscles with a performance that requires him to veer from hope to despair, anger to resignation, and many more emotions aside and Reynolds nails every one of them. His reactions to his situation is completely believable either when he is dealing with a cold bureaucrat (voiced brilliantly by Stephen Tobolowsky) as it is when, in one of the strongest emotional scenes in the film, he talks to his mother who we assume is suffering with dementia.
It’s even more impressive when you consider that all of the lighting in the film has to come from Reynolds. The only source of light we get is from whatever Conroy finds in his coffin that his captives have left behind and it’s up to Reynolds to ensure that we, as an audience, aren’t left in the dark for too long. There are times when the screen is almost 90% in darkness which could be an issue for some viewers but it only heightens the suspense, especially so in the scene when an uninvited visitor joins Conroy in the coffin with the ambiguity building as Conroy sweeps his lighter around the coffin to discover it in one of the film’s standout set pieces.
Despite the presence of other names on the cast list, they only appear as voices on the mobile phone as Conroy desperately tries to contact someone that can help. It’s here that the film’s only negative lies as while some of the calls add an unexpected rich dark vein of humour to the proceedings, such as with arguably the world's most annoying answer phone message, but it’s also where there's an attempt to add a political context to the film. We are expected to believe that in Conroy’s situation, he wouldn’t be doing everything he could to appease a person that can help find him and instead he would go on a rant about government not caring about the little guy. It’s the one reaction that isn’t totally believable in a film that is otherwise terrifyingly real.
However it still doesn’t completely derail a film that while thriller in genre, is scarier than most modern horror films. There isn’t anyone who wouldn’t be scared of being buried alive and Cortés rings every last drop of terror out of the situation and takes the audience on the same rollercoaster that Conroy is suffering, culminating in the thrilling, nerve-jangling finale. It won’t be until you come out of the screen that you realise you’ve been holding your breath the whole time. Not only establishing Ryan Reynolds as one of Hollywood’s strongest leading men, Buried also marks out Rodrigo Cortés as one of the most exciting new directors on the block.