Sometime around the mid 1980s, the phrase ‘high concept’ became intertwined with a certain type of blockbuster. Tom Cruise is a fighter pilot, Eddie Murphy is a cop in Beverley Hills, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are twins.
It came to be frowned upon, spelling out a film’s storyline on the poster and giving little beyond that. Yet, even before the age of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two men synonymous with the art, people were making high concept movies. And perhaps none did it better than Alfred Hitchcock. Rear Window, The Birds, Strangers On A Train and countless others could all be lumped under that banner. Though you suspect that Hitchcock’s motives were less about the easy sell, and more how he could make the kind of film that no-one ever had before.
Buried is the type of high concept film Hitchcock might have made, filtered through the B-movie mind of Larry Cohen, who did more than anyone to continue Hitchcock’s obsessions. He just did it with movies starring the likes of Eric Roberts and Michael Moriarty, rather than James Stewart and Cary Grant.
In fact, Buried reads like a hybrid of two of Hitch’s greatest novelty films: Rope‘s body in a box macguffin, and Lifeboat‘s set in one location story. And where Cohen’s scripts had their high concepts diluted (Phone Booth became just another city-wide thriller under the direction of Joel Schumacher), Buried is honourably true to its conceit.
‘Ryan Reynolds is trapped in a coffin’ isn’t just the film’s jumping off point, it’s the entire ninety minutes. No cut-aways, no flashbacks. Buried is resolute in keeping us boxed in. Aside from voices on the other end of a mobile phone, it’s just Reynolds. In a box. Underground.
It’s the Uma Thurman buried underground scene in Kill Bill: Part 2, or, even better, a scene from George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (the original, not the crappy remake) stretched out to feature length. Except here. there are no Thurman-style heroics, no superhuman feats of strength.
Reynolds’ Paul Conroy is a blue collar guy, a truck driver working in Iraq who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he wakes up in an early grave, he screams like you or I would. And when he realises what’s happened to him, the film’s killer conceit comes to the fore: how the hell is he going to escape?
There’s a more burning question you may be asking before that one, though: how do you sustain a ninety minute film set entirely in a large box?
Buried is confined, but it has visual tricks and elaborate camera moves in spades. Director Rodrigo Cortés and his cinematographer Eduard Grau make it feel more expansive and exciting than most globe-trotting action films.
Grau breaks out his colour filters to mix up the film’s palette, while whip pans, stuttering crash zooms and the odd play with perspective keep things constantly moving. It’s like Evil Dead 2 in a shoebox, Cortés’ camera as restless and exuberant as that of Raimi in his prime. If there’s a drawback to all this, it’s that Buried doesn’t feel as claustrophobic as its premise would suggest.
Where The Descent made you squirm, Cortes’ film makes you want to take a bath. It’s more dirty and grimy than nightmarish. Yet, it still has plenty to keep you in your seat. Chris Sparling’s script is a tightly-wound box of delights, with Conroy’s initial dilemma – ‘Help, I’m stuck in a coffin!’ – only the start. Phone calls from his kidnapper pile upon the misery, a Saw-like tormentor pulling his strings.
And it’s inside the box that Buried‘s real treasure is to be found. Reynolds may be about to go stratospheric if the hype around Green Lantern comes to fruition, and he shows why here, some twelve feet under the ground. It’s a performance that’s built on what he’s done well before, the sarky humour of Van Wilder, only dialled down to a pitch-perfect level and with better material to back it up, the Everyman charm of Definitely Maybe.
Yet, there’s something new here, a vulnerability that you don’t often see in a Hollywood leading man. Reynolds may get to indulge in the odd Indiana Jones-style act of ingenuity, but he’s not afraid to look absolutely terrified. Or sound it. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s on screen for every second of the film’s running time, and he gives the film its most vital ingredient, credibility.
Buried is thrilling because it feels terrifyingly real and close. And unlike most films that start with a great idea, it has an ending to match. Hitchcock would be proud.