A man (Reynolds) wakes up to find himself trapped in a coffin underground. With his air supply running out and only a few power bars on his cell phone, can he get out before he becomes a permanent fixture?
"The true wretchedness," says the unnamed narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Premature Burial, “is to be buried while alive.” After experiencing this deeply unsettling thriller from Rodrigo Cortés, you’ll be likely to agree. It’s not the first time a director has sealed a character in a pine death-trap — most famously, Quentin Tarantino did it in both Kill Bill and CSI — but Cortés takes the idea to its most extreme limits. For the entire 94-minute running time, the camera doesn’t leave the box. What lighting there is is entirely independent, coming from our hero’s phone, torch, glowsticks and the quivering flame of his Zippo lighter. As the clock counts down in real time, the situation feels stomach-churningly real.
Technically, it’s a tour de force. Cortés and crew compensate for their miniscule set with cunning shots (seven coffins were used in the shoot, one of which allowed the camera to spin 360 degrees) and nerve-shredding sound design (especially the intensifying whisper of sand seeping through a crack in the lid). On a TV the film may lose much of its power, but in a cinema it’s almost unbearable. Those of a claustrophobic bent may find themselves hyperventilating into their popcorn.
But arguably even more important than the directorial sleight-of-hand is the bloke in front of the camera. The single on-screen character, Paul Conroy, is a blue-collar contractor and family man who, through no fault of his own, has wound up six feet under. His emotional arc is actually more like a series of jagged spikes: he starts the movie with a panic attack and moves on to despair, hope and fury (not necessarily in that order). So kudos to Cortés for not casting an angst veteran like Edward Norton, but going instead with Ryan Rodney Reynolds, the fresh-faced rising star whose usual setting is glib and breezy. Smeared in dirt and racked with pain, the future Green Lantern delivers the goods, convincing from start to finish. Not quite so convincing are a few of the voices we hear on the other end of Paul’s phone as he tries to negotiate his escape, although Stephen Toblowosky is marvellously maddening as the bureaucrat from hell. The reveal of why exactly Paul is in his makeshift tomb also takes a slightly iffy detour into political territory, Cortes’ anti-war message slightly dampened by the fact the foreign baddies are so utterly diabolical.
Still, quibbles are quickly forgotten when oxygen’s running low, light is growing dimmer and a poisonous creature has just slithered on-screen. As a fiendish test of your nerves, Buried is hard to beat.
A brutally intense indie that commits to its bleak premise and doesnt back down. Tarantino will cackle as he watches.