“Here’s your writing prompt: You are to write a feature-length screenplay with only one on-screen character. This character is to remain in only one location for the entire duration of the film, and that one location must be a 2′ x 7′ wooden box. You cannot use flashbacks, cut-aways, or any other narrative device that would take the action outside that box. Sound impossible? It’s not. In fact, all this exactly describes the film BURIED.”
Or how about this one. We’ve all had the experience. You try to call a corporation to discuss a problem with your bill or service, or maybe just to get a few answers. You have to go through the “obstacle course” of automated options. If you do manage to finally reach a warm human voice, they’ll tell you that it’s not their department and that they can’t help you. They might offer to transfer your call, but you know instinctively that means you’ll either be dropped completely or end up back in the endless loop of crappy music on the calling queue. Eventually, you’ll reach another person who will start the whole thing over again. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Your arm gets tired of holding the phone. It’s a real inconvenience, to say the least. But imagine that you’ve just awakened inside a coffin-sized wooden box that appears to be buried underground. You have no idea how you got here or why. There is a cell phone in the darkness with you and by some kind of a miracle there’s even a signal. You can call anyone you want. You try to call the company you work for, the ones who placed you in a war zone to drive trucks across battlefields of sand so that supplies can be moved in the hot zone. They’ve given you a “safety” number, but it has been taken from you. And you start to get the same runaround. Honestly, after watching Buried for the first time, I’ll never look at those experiences in quite the same way again.
Ryan Reynolds stars as John Conroy. He’s a truck driver in Iraq. His convoy was ambushed. Most of his co-workers have been shot and left for dead, at least that’s the fuzzy memory he has. He was hit on the head. The next thing he knows, he’s in this aforementioned box. There are a limited number of supplies in the box with him. There is the cell phone, a flashlight, a Zippo lighter, a couple of glow sticks, and oh, there might be a snake in here as well. He tries to call 911, but there’s only so much a dispatcher in Ohio can do for you if you’re buried in a coffin in Iraq. He tries to call his family but gets only voice mail. The FBI’s no help. He can’t seem to get through to the correct person at the company he works for. Even when he does get someone who appears willing to help, they want to cover their own backsides first.
When one of the people responsible for putting him here finally calls he learns that he’s being ransomed for “5 million money, American”. He knows that’s not going to happen. We just don’t negotiate with terrorists. The conversations with the captor reveal some political leanings but mostly provide an effective outlet for some of John’s anger and frustration.
It is through these various conversations that the narrative comes into focus. As the audience you, like John, are not permitted to leave the close confines of the coffin. You don’t get a second’s break from the claustrophobia. There is no set-up. There is no epilogue. The entire film takes place in this limited space with just the minimal light sources that were left for John in the box. All of this goes a long way in limiting the storytelling in this movie. But good filmmakers look at limitations and see challenges. Let’s be honest here. A risk like this can be completely disastrous. I’ve seen more than my fair share of projects that were too ambitious. This had all of the earmarks of that kind of movie. And it was too ambitious. But somewhere along the way these filmmakers found a way to capture something very special with their cameras.
From the film’s opening frames your patience will be tested. For what seems like a lot longer than it likely is, the screen is simply black with no picture or sound at all. It’s what the business calls dead air, and it’s to be avoided at all costs. Today’s moviegoers are an impatient lot, for the most part. Director Cortes appears to have a wonderfully accurate instinct for just how long is too long. Just when I was beginning to get a bit annoyed, I heard the first faint sounds of breathing. That bought him a few extra seconds. Then the sounds become somewhat frantic. Before I could lose what little patience I had remaining, I saw the first flashes of light as John discovers his Zippo and tries to get a sustained flame going. I can’t tell you the exact moment when it happened. Was it during those flashes of light followed by another moment of blackness. Was it when I first got a real good look at John’s situation? I really can’t tell you when it happened. I can only tell you that at some point Cortes got me hooked. With just a 7′ by 2′ set, I was on the edge of my seat for the next 90 minutes. And you will be, too.
In order for this to have any chance of working, everything had to be perfect. The actor had to be able to sell a journey of emotions without ever being able to move from a single spot. He had to tell us everything in his voice because we are only going to get small glimpses of his features. Ryan Reynolds would not have been my first choice to carry that kind of weight. He’s a fine enough actor, but he’s flown mostly under my radar over the years. He wouldn’t have made my top 100 actors for the part. But, you see, that’s why I’m a movie watcher and Cortes is a movie maker. I don’t know what he spotted in Reynolds that made him so confident that he could make this kind of a gamble on the performer. Whatever it was, it paid off. Reynolds completely nails this part.
Okay, now you have the actor. How the hell do you write a script that can maintain the tension and keep an audience engaged in such a tight space no matter how good the actor might be? The script was written by Chris Sparling. Chris Sparling? Really? Dude’s written maybe two other things before, and none of it is mainstream. You’re going to trust this guy to keep me engaged for 90 minutes with one character I can see and a barely lit coffin for all of that time? Please, tell me you’re joking. The only thing that Sparling accomplished here is a dang miracle. The film has perfect pacing. The phone calls provide just enough for Reynolds to interact off and move the narrative forward. It would have been so easy for Sparling to include just a few flashbacks. I mean, what could that have hurt? Everybody does it. Exactly right. Everybody does it. That’s what makes this one of the best.
Even with a solid script and performer, you still have to shoot the bloody thing. There are all kinds of obstacles to overcome. Lighting is going to be a nightmare. Since the actor can’t really move much, how do you keep the image moving enough to avoid stagnation? I saw the behind the scenes stuff, and I still can’t imagine how they pulled this off. It appears that Reynolds was just as uncomfortable as John was supposed to be. Now that’s what I call method acting. It doesn’t really matter how they did it. All you need to know is that they did it. I promise you that you’ve never been sucked into a movie quite like this one is going to pull you in. A lot of people compare it to the coffin scene in Kill Bill 2. This isn’t anything like that at all. This is 90 times better.
Buried is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. Seldom has an aspect ratio been so important. It seems that this particular ratio fits perfectly with the dimensions of our makeshift coffin. This is not a movie that is intended to shine. Lighting is often terrible, so some of what is happening is intentionally obscured in the darkness. It’s not a case of weak black levels, but an attempt to put us in the same sensory situation as John in the box. Contrast is quite important and effective here. Those first quick flashes of light rely on startling contrast and razor sharpness to be effective. I’m not sure that a standard-definition DVD can be near as solid here. There are a lot of close-ups on Reynolds throughout the film and they do a wonderful job, again with the limitations of light, in showing his emotional and physical toll. You will be drawn into that box.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound might seem terribly inappropriate at first glance. This is a claustrophobic situation, and you don’t want a large sound. But what you get here closes the space by making it wider. Have you ever been in an enclosed wooden space for any length of time? Sound is actually amplified in a confined space. Direction is so much more precise. That’s what you get out of this very effective audio presentation. Every breath is important. When John moves his feet, it’s vital that the sound be accurate and come from precisely the right place. Someone should be doing workshops on sound design and use this release as a beautiful model. It’s far more effective than the loudest explosive movie you’ll ever hear.
Unearthing Buried: (17:59) SD Many of the participants do not speak English, so you’ll have to rely on subtitles for much of this feature. You get a look at the box and how the cameras were used to create the atmosphere on the movie.
Gambles are called gambles for a very good reason. You can take a great risk and do everything just right. That doesn’t mean that the success will automatically follow. The movie only found a very limited release and with that the limited box office receipts. I can completely understand why the people involved might feel a little snubbed and a bit hungry for people to take notice of what they did. The opening lines of this review were taken from an ill-advised letter to the Awards Committee in violation of that body’s rules. Some critical acclaim has indeed come, and I’m happy to add my insignificant voice to that collection. I hope the release on home video will go further to justify the risks these guys took. I want to see what happens with the next risk. The problem remains: “There are about 40,000 reasons for not making this movie and there is only one for making it. And that’s the one that counts.”