Buried is yet another film to gather excitement at a festival. It premiered at Sundance in 2010 and came to theaters later that year. It’s a thriller, but it’s more along the lines of a select few puzzle solving films like Cube or Exam in which we watch our cast search, discover, and reason their way out of some predicament. Buried, however, may be closer to something like Phone Booth, a film with a stronger focus on character drama than crazy twists and turns. Paul Conroy wakes up in a coffin, buried alive. It’s one location and one actor, and he doesn’t have much time to live.
Buried, to its credit, stays strongly realistic. He wakes up, he freaks out. There’s a cell phone and a lighter. From this the film creates incredible drama. Paul is smart, he does what we would do. He calls the police, he calls his friends, he calls the FBI. He feels the deep deep frustration of dealing with being put on hold. All the while, sand slowly leaks into the coffin from above. He begins to have trouble breathing, and a moment later, he realizes it’s time to turn off his lighter.
We get Paul’s story through his phone calls. He was a truck driver in Iraq. His convoy was attacked, and that’s all he knows. He slowly becomes more comfortable in his cell, and the people he calls slowly come closer to finding him. The film creates fantastic tension from just these pieces. Every moment is valuable, and so every movement that he makes inside of the coffin and every drop of battery life that he wastes on the phone piles on more suspense. He goes through agonizing pain to grab objects just inches from his fingertips. He scrawls phone numbers and names on the walls to let himself breathe for a moment.
This film is a feat in storytelling in many ways. Visually, it’s incredible how well this works. We almost never get more than Paul does, and the few times that we do, it’s only darkness framing his chamber. The film opens on darkness and breathing - he hasn’t found light yet. Our only light sources are a flickering lighter and a cell phone screen. It’s brilliant the way these are used to illuminate our only character. He needs the light as much as we do. We’re obviously incredibly close to Paul - it’s claustrophobic, but never hard to watch. We get to see a surprising amount for how near we are to our subject. The film looks good. It sells its set and its character, and it accomplishes a good deal with such a limited space. Ryan Reynolds plays Paul, and he does a great job within such tight constraints.
There are fantastic moments of storytelling across these phone calls. Most are Paul trying to contact authorities to help him escape. Others find Paul speaking to friends and family, and these range from deeply honest to heartbreaking. He calls his wife’s friend, and she hangs up on him for swearing at her. The film is smart. It never moves into unlikely plot twists - there’s only so much available, and it stays within the confines of a man, a phone, and a coffin.
For as cheesy as Cube and Exam are, those types of films can be seriously stimulating. By their nature, they create suspense, and it’s always wonderful watching a puzzle unfold. Buried takes that all to an even smarter place. There’s almost no possibility of escape. He needs to use every second wisely. This is a very well made film. It’s impressive to tell a story using only phone calls or using only one actor on screen or using only one room, let alone to do so with all at once. If you’re a fan of any of the films noted as similar, Buried is a must watch. For everyone else, it’s seriously cool as long as you aren’t too impatient.