Multi-hyphenate director Rodrigo Cortés has burst onto the scene with his sophomore feature Buried, a bratty but canny thriller that takes a very simple premise—a man (Ryan Reynolds) is buried alive and has to find a way out—and runs much farther with it than any right-minded director should have been able to. The plight that Reynolds’s man in peril is placed in automatically breeds sympathy: He hasn’t been buried alive because someone is specifically out to get him, but rather because he just happens to be an American truck driver in Iraq. But realistically, it shouldn’t take too long before an arguably necessary plot device erodes that built-in bond: Reynolds has a working cellphone in the coffin with him.
Cortés miraculously sidesteps that certain tedium thanks to the way his wandering camera navigates around Reynolds’s coffin. So, while Buried is probably 10-to-15 minutes too long, it’s somehow mostly on-target. Then again: the film’s morality play is unavoidably top-heavy and overstated; though Buried takes places entirely within the coffin Reynolds is trapped inside, the cell he discovers by his side allows us to go out and totally confirm his isolation through fruitless phone calls placed to evasive authority figures and truant loved ones.
Screenwriter Chris Sparling isn’t wholly capable of delivering dialogue capable of making these calls resonate beyond a superficial level (a scene where Reynolds’s character’s senile mother rebuffs him is especially poorly conceived), and Cortés frequently overuses trick photography that mimics Reynolds’s sensory deprived POV. But there’s a distinct pleasure in seeing Cortés’s budding talent grow in public. There are isolated scenes where he perfectly conflates Reynolds’s body with his surroundings. One particularly memorable shot turns Reynolds’s face into an eyeball whose angular eyelashes look distinctly like a Venus Flytrap, a la Aeon Flux. Maneuvers like that are the heart of the film, but it’s the fluid, intuitive intelligence behind them that’s really exciting: In swathes, the film really does look like one man’s frantic attempt to regain sanity by unconsciously refashioning and expanding his surroundings a scene at a time. Though Buried‘s hardly the sum of its tantalizing parts, Cortés puts enough genuine craft and thoughtful execution into it to make his big breakthrough a smart little B movie.