If you’ve already got plans to catch Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern in next summer’s Hollywood superhero extravaganza of the same name, then you really need to watch him give the finest work of his career in his latest feature. In “Buried,” Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a contract truck driver in Iraq who awakes to find himself trapped underground in a coffin with only a lighter and cell phone and without a single clue of how he got into his situation. Over the course of ninety-four minutes, the audience is also trapped inside the casket as they match fear, pain, frustration and hope with Conroy’s every breath and whim.
The most surprising thing about the film was how well it all worked, how engaging and surreal of an experience “Buried” became even after viewing it on the big screen. It really does linger with you. I have seen a few one-man plays and stagey films, but this picture was like nothing I’d seen before. For a movie that consists essentially of a sole actor and a set consisting of just a casket, “Buried” is very much alive and screaming. Reynolds’ fluid performance puts his character through virtually every emotion a human being can possibly have in one lifetime.
In a recent issue of “Entertainment Weekly,” the actor stated, “My hardest day on [‘Green Lantern’] is nothing compared to my easiest day on ‘Buried.'” At the Manhattan press conference I attended, Reynolds elaborated a bit on that statement and added, “A movie like ‘Buried’ is so psychological and so terrifying, that it’s really more of an emotional kind of preparation. But a movie like ‘Green Lantern’ is, you’re spending five months doing gymnastics, and when you’re six-foot-two, that just shouldn’t be done. But I’ve been lucky so far. I have an ability that I’ve used throughout my career, I’m fortunate to have that, but most of it is dumb luck. I had a career that allowed me to do a number of different things early on, and because of that, I never had this meteoric success early on. I wasn’t a 19-year-old kid on the cover of a magazine. I was in the industry, but I wasn’t of the industry, so it really allowed me to have an outside perspective and I was able to mature in a normal way, like a career should. So, in my early thirties, where I am now, for an ability or an opportunity to do a movie like ‘Buried,’ and then a movie like ‘Green Lantern’ in the same year – I’m going to keep trying to do that as long as they’ll let me.”
Just as important as what happens on-screen is how Director Rodrigo Cortes molded the movie like a master artist or like a great illusionist. Somehow the youthful Cortes did the unimaginable by making the audience believe that anything can happen within the enclosure of this wooden box, setting plenty of atmosphere and mood by playing with space. By never repeating a shot, Cortes always kept his movie moving and sharp. The director has stated that shooting this film in “real time” continuity-wise was his biggest challenge, so he should be commended for the fact that he turned this one-man story into a real, inviting and compelling experience. With a budget said to be under two million dollars, the film’s seventy-five pages of script was shot chronologically in Spain over the course of seventeen days, with twelve hours of shooting each day.
Producer Adrian Guerra brought the director on-board, and when Cortes read the screenplay, the excited director envisioned, courted and cast Ryan Reynolds for this part. Concerning the appeal the story holds for him, Cortes told me, “Actually, it was a script that was traveling around in Hollywood for a year. It was part of the Hollywood Black List, a list of the best unproduced scripts. Everybody thought that it was unshootable – thank God, this way I could read it. I thought the opposite thing. I felt that I needed to do this film because it was impossible to be made. Actually, the first thing I asked is, ‘What is it about?’ They told me it’s about a guy in a box for ninety minutes. So I said, ‘I’m interested. I’m definitely interested. It sounds foolish enough.’ And when I read it I discovered an amazing story that needed to be told.”
The film’s much-talked-about script was penned by Chris Sparling, another up and coming filmmaker who originally conceived the story as something he’d possibly film himself. In my interview, Sparling went into more detail, “I was going to produce it, I was going to direct it and write it, the whole nine. So that’s what I had. Then I said, ‘All right, well now I need a movie to support my budget,’ and so, naturally, it had to be a very small film with a few characters, a few locations, I just kept paring it down, paring it down, until I was ultimately left with a guy buried alive. So, once I got to that point, I said, ‘Okay, that’s great, that seems to work for my budget. Now I need a story.’ I didn’t necessarily want to go the horror film route. I wanted to make more of a Hitchcockian thriller, if you will. That’s the kind of story I wanted to tell. And so I started to do a lot of research, and I saw countless times that contractors in particular were being taken hostage in Iraq, and, naturally, when they’re being held hostage, they’re not kept in the best of conditions. So I kind of looked at that and said, well, what if that’s my situation, where my protagonist is a guy, a contractor, a civilian, in Iraq, and he’s taken hostage, and he’s held for ransom, and he’s buried alive. Instantly raising the stakes, and he’s pretty much told, ‘You have until nine o’clock to coordinate your own ransom or you’re just going to stay there.'”
Within the movie, the character of Paul Conroy, an American family man, is as much at the mercy of his hostage-takers as he is by modern society itself. He’s trapped both inside and outside his coffin as people hide behind technology or bureaucracy. The film exposes a level of human disconnect that people have for one another in the fast-paced world we live in. When the initial bounty of five million dollars for Paul’s life goes unheeded, his capturers discount him to one million dollars like a blue plate special. With the few phone calls he makes (on a cell with a foreign interface), he desperately cries out for help but only finds an endless maze of ineptitude and a tremendous lack of compassion from his government, acquaintances and the corporation that contracted him to work in Iraq. Despite the fact that no one seems to care about his life, the character fights with every ounce of his being to survive.
“Buried” is definitely a suspenseful film, with perhaps a degree of horror, but there’s also a very strong dramatic character study within its running time. Writer Chris Sparling commented, “For me, personally, the drama is really the foundation of the story. That’s the story of Paul Conrad, the struggle of Paul Conrad, learning about this character through this dramatic journey, really. He is the root of the story. I don’t mean to say that with any sort of pretension – it’s just, that’s the way I always saw it. It’s the tension, the thrills and, naturally, the ticking clocks that make it the thriller and the suspense movie that it is.”
As for the film’s leading man, Reynolds decided not to do any rehearsal prior to filming, preferring to go straight into the casket and right into the Herculean challenge of a role. At the Manhattan press event, Reynolds explained, “Prep-wise, there’s not a lot you can do. This guy’s experiencing something extraordinary. I couldn’t actual imagine what that was like, so, for me, most of the prep happened moments before. I wanted to get inside to see if the shoe fit, I jumped in the coffin, ‘Yup, it fits. Let’s go. Let’s shoot.’ So that was really it. The prep I did was kind of layering some unlikable traits with the character as opposed to him just being this, like, wonderful human being. There needs to be something that draws you in. It’s a real person, someone you may not want to have a beer with if you were to get to the surface, but the human condition is to empathize and, because of that, no matter who he is, we want this guy to get up to the surface so we can hug him, or punch him out, or do whatever. However our personal feelings are about this guy, you still want him to live, because we’re human beings, and that’s how we operate.”
To appear in a movie where you’re the only actor on-screen is a pretty fearless move. Also daunting was the fact that throughout the movie, the actor is boxed in a very confined area. Reynolds spoke to this experience, saying, “Claustrophobia, as a primal fear, I think exists within everybody, and this is probably most human beings’ worst nightmare come true, to be buried alive. I couldn’t help but feel that when we were shooting. I mean, we were using a coffin, and there were very few tricks actually used. The greatest tricks were sort of sleight of hand engineered by Mr. Rodrigo Cortes. For me, I was enclosed in there and I had my moments of utter panic that were soothed in different ways. One woman was playing all the roles, practically, when we were shooting, so I had a microphone very close to my chest. She would hear a panic attack starting because she could hear my heartbeat accelerating when we weren’t shooting. There were times where I couldn’t get in and out of the coffin with any kind of ease, so I just had to stay in there, and when you have 50, 60, 70 pounds of wood on your chest, pressing against you, you start to have a moment of panic. So she would talk about wide open spaces, meadows, streams, things like that. Esoteric stuff that would just chill me out and allow me to keep doing the job. So, yeah, lots of moments.”
“Buried” is very much an emotional journey told with a lot of style and passion. At its center is a lone man doing everything possible to stay alive and willful within the truly awful situation in which fate has placed him. Writer Chris Sparling added, “It’s not a political statement by any stretch of the imagination. It’s more a statement on the broader scope of society, where there’s this sort of disconnect that exists, I think. And perhaps the cell phone serves as a symbol of that. It’s one more degree of separation. Between you and I, instead of us talking over the phone, we’re talking face-to-face. There is a connection between us. And I think, overall, there’s this sense of, because you have that wall, because you have that bit of detachment, you’re allowed to kind of step back for a moment and say, ‘All right, well, how is this going to affect me?’ Whether it’s on the corporate level, on the government level, or on just the everyday person level. He calls his wife’s friend, and she doesn’t – yeah, because, ‘I have to go to the supermarket. How is this something that affects me? You calling me right now, you wanting me to do you a favor in looking something up. How does that affect my life at the moment?’ And that’s kind of what I want to get across. And also you see it, to some degree, with the scenes where he’s put on hold all the time. It’s like, ‘Okay, I need to pass you off, because I don’t want to be the person that has to deal with the situation.'”
In “Buried,” actor Ryan Reynolds, screenwriter Chris Sparling and director Rodrigo Cortes have created one of the cleverest movie experiences in recent years. There are numerous instances of pure genius filmmaking and human sincerity on display as we watch Reynolds’ everyman search for hopefulness in a world that simply doesn’t have time for compassion. Truthfully, great cinema always goes for the jugular because it enraptures and provokes one to wake up and think. This claustrophobic picture is no exception to that rule.
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