In ‘Buried’, One Must Suspend Disbelief About the Actual Range of Cell Phone Coverage

[2 February 2011]

By Brent McKnight

I'm stuck in a box. Why am I in this box? Get me out of this box.

The basic idea behind Buried is simple.  Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up in a coffin, buried alive with nothing but a cell phone, a cigarette lighter, and a desperate urge to live.  It doesn’t get much more minimal than a single actor in a single space, like a one-man show.  However, the execution of Buried is anything but.  Director Rodrigo Cortés carefully creates an almost oppressively suspenseful film where every second of action takes place underground, within the space of a few square feet.

After a credit sequence that immediately calls to mind Hitchcock (one of the posters for Buried is also a direct descendent of Vertigo), the first shot of the film is more than a minute of complete blackness.  The shot is so long that you might start to wonder if your Blu-ray player is malfunctioning—don’t worry, your technology is fine.  After a while you start to hear Paul’s panicked breathing and a collection of guttural, animal noises as he frantically searches for clues about his situation.  There’s not an actual word uttered until ten-minutes into the movie.

The script by Chris Sparling is clever in the way that it divulges information.  You learn about Paul’s predicament as he does.  Everything that is revealed to him is also revealed to you, a tactic that creates a close identification between viewer and viewed.  When Paul discovers the cell phone, he starts dialing every number he can recall, and through these calls the particulars of the plot are revealed, most notably that Paul is a truck driver, a civilian contractor in Iraq, and he was kidnapped after his convoy was ambushed while making a delivery.  But more than that, you pick up little details about Paul’s life, his past, his motivations, and subtle tensions within his family.

Every little action in Buried only serves to amplify the tension.  Paul’s situation is never merely bad.  It starts off awful, and only gets worse and worse from there, as his state of affairs becomes increasingly dire.  Surprisingly, in all of the film’s attempts to intensify Paul’s frustrations dealing with ineffective government officials and representatives from his employers that care more about the bottom line than Paul, there are few missteps.  There is a scene with a snake that stretches your suspension of disbelief, and sure, in most modern horror movies no one gets any cell phone reception anywhere, yet Paul gets decent service even six feet underground—except when it serves the plot to drop a call—but other than that, Buried maintains a constant level of elevated tension, building towards the only possible conclusion that wouldn’t ruin everything that came before.

Despite the fact that Buried never shows anything outside of Paul’s coffin, the film never gets stale or boring.  Cortés employs a unique array of cinematic techniques to keep the film visually fresh and interesting.  There are almost no repeated shots, and the framing, camera moves, and angles, only increase the overall claustrophobia.  The flickering light of Paul’s trusty Zippo, which provides his only light for a large portion of the film, creates and intimate atmosphere with in the box.  To film Buried, the production crew constructed seven different coffins, long coffins, tall coffins, and the most inventive coffin, called the 360, with moveable walls that they could raise and lower to allow the camera to pan around Paul while still maintaining the illusion that he is trapped underground. 

The only real bonus feature is a behind the scenes documentary that gives you an in depth glimpse into the 17-day shoot.  It gives you a nice look into the process they used, and how they overcame the obstacles presented by trying to film a story like this while keeping it fresh.  It is definitely worth a look.

Because Reynolds is the only real character, there are some voices on the phone but most only have a few lines, the success or failure of Buried rests on his cramped shoulders, and he displays an extensive range with very little movement.  Paul goes through every possible emotion in his journey, from fear, to anger, to resignation and hopeful optimism.  His character is flawed, relatable, and most importantly, believable.  You can put yourself in his shoes, no matter how much it might make your skin crawl, and think that you would act in a similar manner.  At the end of the day, despite all the visual trickery and clever scripting, it’s Reynolds’ performance that carries Buried.

What the cast and crew achieve in Buried is impressive.  This is a movie that uses a minimalist concept, and a strong performance, to great effect.  The film is an engaging, suspenseful, thriller that keeps up a steady pace without ever actually leaving a single space that is no more than few square feet in size.

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