In the past decade, it has become an increasingly rare occurrence for a film director’s ambition to exceed the capabilities of the medium. CGI has developed so rapidly that it is now possible to render convincingly entire planets onscreen, and visual limitations are still continuously being eroded. Yet one only need look at ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ or the blunderingly moronic ‘Avatar’ to see that flawless digital effects do not equate to a good movie – more often than not they will take detract from an original story or interesting characters. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that with ‘Buried’, director Rodrigo Cortés has proved that limitations – both geographical and budgetary – can be an extremely good thing.

The pitch of the film is extraordinarily, deceptively simple: Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up in a coffin, buried alive, with a mobile phone and little else for company. For ninety-four minutes, the camera remains with him inside this cramped wooden box as he tries to figure out who put him there and, more importantly, how to get out. Indeed, so simple is this concept that it is somewhat surprising that no filmmaker has attempted it before, and Cortés himself has spoken of how he couldn’t believe his luck when he was handed the script; in particular it seems tailor-made for Hitchcock, stretching the audacities of ‘Lifeboat’ or ‘Rear Window’ as far as possible. Then again, it is difficult to conceive of a greater challenge for a director, limited as the film is by the dimensions of a coffin.

It is to the great credit of Cortes that not only does the film maintain a grippingly dramatic narrative, but it also manages to be hugely inventive; the camera is continually spinning, zooming, moving to ensure an unceasing visual kineticism, the colour palette is impressively varied thanks to the presence of different sources of light, and the sound design regularly amps up the tension with occasional ominous creaks from the fragile wood. Surrounded by all this, Reynolds is onscreen the entire time, and as such, the film succeeds or fails on his performance. Fortunately, his ferociously intense and naturalistic acting ensures that the audience shares his panicked claustrophobia to a thoroughly uncomfortable degree.

The notion of being buried alive may be a familiar one, explored by everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to Quentin Tarantino, yet here it feels utterly fresh. Together, Cortés and Reynolds reinvigorate the concept, unleashing the full primal horror and panic that it entails while also exploring effectively themes of technology and bureaucracy. ‘Buried’ is by no means an easy watch, taking as it does the terrifying claustrophobia of ‘The Descent’ to the extreme, yet it is also utterly thrilling and moving, leaving its viewers drained of emotion and energy. There is unlikely to be a more original and forcibly immersive film this year than this minor taphophobic masterpiece.

Originally published by Cherwell online, 03/10/10.

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