By Brian Lafferty
October 3, 2010 (San Diego)--Claustrophobia seems to be a popular theme in the last two months. Lebanon took place entirely within a tank populated by four Israeli soldiers during the First Lebanon War. Whatever was seen outside the tank was limited to what was viewed through the periscope. Devil had several people stuck in an elevator with someone eventually revealed to be the Devil himself. Now we have Buried, a film featuring Ryan Reynolds in Iraq buried several feet underground in a coffin. This is a movie that must be seen in the theater to fully appreciate it. Not even the best home theater system can faithfully replicate the claustrophobic effects experienced at the cinema.
I do not want to give away too much. We don’t know anything about Reynolds at the start but over the course of the film we learn about him, how he got buried, and the people who he talks to on a cell phone. All of this is revealed slowly, which is the best aspect of the experience.
The film’s only source of lighting comes from either the lighter, cell phone, glow tube, or flash light. If none of these are lit, the whole screen goes black. This use of lighting and its effect reminded me of my father recounting a shot from The Little Mermaid, which he saw in the theater. He recalled one shot where the screen went entirely dark except for the whites of Ursula’s eyes. Just like that shot, each shot in Buried, combined with the darkness of the theater and the big screen gives a unique and chilling atmosphere that only a movie theater can offer.
If there are two people who deserve as much praise from me as director Rodrigo Cortes, cinematographer Eduard Grau, writer Chris Sparling, and Ryan Reynolds they are Luci Lenox and Stephanie Corsalini. They are responsible for the casting and show how just how important this job is. All the people Reynolds talks to on the phone have unique accents, speech patterns, and voices. As a result, it is very easy to discern which person is Reynolds’s boss (Stephen Tobolowsky), which person is coordinating his rescue effort, which person is his mother, and so on.
The entire movie may be confined entirely in the coffin but writer Sparling still has room for shocking imagery and chilling scares. From snakes to disturbing videos, there is a whole lot that can be done in a box.
The claustrophobia is effective without being gimmicky. It isn’t an in-your-face claustrophobia bur rather a concoction of subtle components that add up. Reynolds cannot sit up or bend over. He is forced to lie down in one direction. He also has a hard time breathing. This had a slight physiological effect on me. I had a hard time breathing just watching him struggling to inhale. Seeing the constriction of Reynolds’s movement gave me the feeling of near-paralysis.
During the screening, the people around me kept wondering aloud why Reynolds didn’t say such-and-such or do so-and-so when it would be the most logical thing to do. I looked at it differently. Reynolds’s actions, however illogical or idiotic as they may seem, are based in irrationality. It isn’t so much that the movie has a good idea what it’s like to be buried in a coffin. It’s that it knows how any person would feel and react under those circumstances. This is what makes Buried work and what elevates it above gimmick status.