Some cinemagoers queued up last night up to six hours to catch the world premiere of Rodrigo Cortés’ second long feature Buried in the Library Center Theater at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and, for those eager for a breathtaking, nail-biting experience, it was worth the wait.
The claustrophobic script by Chris Sparling takes lone onscreen actor Ryan Reynolds, a US contractor working in Iraq, on an agonizing countdown when he wakes up buried in a coffin with a lighter, a cell phone and the daunting task of getting a $5 million ramson or else give in to the fate of pushing Iraqi daisies.
This extreme Lifeboat situation is a defining formal and thematic premise of the film and therefore the source of its many virtues and, inevitably, of its self-impossed limitations.
Buried is indeed a very Hitchcockian film, starting with its credits and with an outstanding Bernard Herrmann-influenced score by Víctor Reyes, but rather than Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the more obvious reference of the picture is 1964 episode Final Escape of the Hitckcock Hour series. That short film, and its 1985 female remake, had a convict planning to escape in a coffin with the help of the prison mortician, who is supposed to dig him out. When, in the last scene, the prisoner strikes a match and discovers that the stiff he’s sharing the coffin with is his supposed savior, the viewer is left with the unplesant and disturbing task of imagining the poor guy’s fate.
Cortés’ picture picks up literally where that short film left off and thus dares to embark the viewer on a story that no filmmaker ever wanted, or was brave enough, to tell before. Some might argue that from the perspective of traditional narrative, the exercise is not only highly risky, but also unnecessary. It’s like trying to have a take on Lewis Carrol by writing a sequel to Alice in Wonderland when the girl wakes up or, in other words, to explicit the part of the story that no one wants to read or, in the case of Buried, to see.
Cortés’ directorial effort, however, proves this theory wrong. To start with, it is a cinematic achievement to be able to keep the film’s tension until the very last minute in such a limited location and pull off a couple of terrific action scenes to boot. Admittedly, Sparling’s script is inventive enough as a whole but uneven at times, as it gives the impression that he is just trying to come up with a new idea to torment the guy with in his death trap. The helmer’s response to these writing flaws is consistently brilliant, thanks to a masterful camera work that moves inside the coffin as if it were a football stadion and, specially, to the austere but highly effective lighting effects.
Reynolds is nothing short of brilliant in this challenging role and, surprisingly enough, is helped by a good offscreen supporting cast, with Stephen Tobolowsky (to whom Reynolds publicly thanked in the Q&A session) a standout.
Rodrigo Cortés had proved in his previous work that he is no ordinary director, and this film confirms not only his talent but the brilliant future that lies ahead of him. From the reaction to the film of the audience that packed the theater in its Sundance midnight world premiere, I guess I’m not the only one to think so.
PS (especially to my number 1 reader E): Sundance is great but exhausting, so please forgive me if I post my entries a little late.
PS2: K. cie!!!