Buried and the Art of Cinematic Minimalism

You could tell from the trailer of Inception that it was going to be big. Big concept, big cast, big hype. As critically acclaimed as the film was, it was burdened with characters who revolved around one man (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb) – at the expense of having fully fleshed-out roles. Ellen Page’s character was labelled “the Architect,” but functionally speaking she was merely the newcomer, the link between viewer and subject matter that provided a pretext for all that exposition. That’s how “big” the film was – nearly half the film was devoted to exposition.

On the flipside, you get films that are so understated they are afterthoughts in cinematic lore. Rodrigo Cortes’s Buried is one of them. Costing only $2 million to produce, the entire film takes place in a coffin. The only star – nay, the only actor – is Ryan Reynolds, if you don’t include the voice actors and a brief video of another hostage. On these bases, Buried is a venture in minimalism. Cortes proves that a story can be crafted with only the most basic elements and still be fantastically gripping.

Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is a truck driver who wakes up to find he’s been buried alive. Unlike Kill Bill‘s Bride, though, he cannot punch a hole in the roof; the climate of fear here is visceral, not campy. Instead, he must rely on the arsenal of gadgets he finds in his pockets: a flashlight, a Zippo, a pen, a whiskey flask and a BlackBerry, the latter of which is how he calls for help. The film’s suspense rests largely on this minimalism; an active lighter burns up his air supply and he has only so much battery life on his phone to seek help.

Not only must he negotiate an escape, he must get to the bottom of who put him there and why. And the loop-around, even given his dire situation, would be laughable were it not so damningly consequential. The head of his own supply company has forsaken him, caring nothing more than to protect himself from future litigation. When he connects with Jabir (convincingly played by a Hispanic), the Iraqi who placed him and the cell phone there, he is told it will take $1 million to free him. When he finally reaches a hostage negotiator (superbly voiced by Robert Paterson), he learns that he is not the only American that this has happened to.  And in between all this chaos, a snake finds its way in the coffin.

In other words, Murphy’s law is unabashedly in effect. As in 2002’s Phone Booth, everything that can go wrong does. Even in the confines of a 7 by 2.5 foot coffin, then, our hero has enough action to keep him busy. And it helps that Reynolds executes his role outstandingly, injecting trepidation in every syllable, facial expression and twist of his body. The mental and physical claustrophobia becomes palpable to the audience, and faced with this horror, we pray that he gets out.

Beyond sheer suspense, Buried maintains a cynical view of human relationships. Far from succumbing to a more black and white script where Iraqis are evil terrorists, Jabir provides his own reasoning for doing what he’s doing. Not that it’s ever outrightly justified, but one gets the sense that Conroy was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, and now he’s entombed because of it. His antagonist – and therefore our antagonist – is not Jabir, but selfishness. Personal happenstance is exposed as non-negotiable, as cold and indifferent as death itself.

That a 100-minute story can unfold in one setting is remarkable in itself. That Cortes is able to make us writhe in anticipation while he touches on politics and philosophy is ingenious. While Inception had everything from the unlikely to the preposterous within its cinematic reach, Buried had only the things it could plausibly afford.  And with that in mind, it is pound for pound a much superior work.

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