The James Clayton Column: Buried in bleak horror, totally alone

A trip to the cinema to see Buried leaves James in a bewildered, philosophical mood, and left contemplating the meaning of life, death, and Raging Bull…

This week’s column contains a major spoiler for the film Buried if you haven’t seen it yet.

In slow motion black-and-white, I see a lone man in a leopard skin robe dancing around a boxing ring clouded by smoke. The stirring strings of the intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana sweep over the scene and the opening titles appear on the right of the screen. That’s a majestic way to open a motion picture.

Yes, let’s collectively cast our minds back to Raging Bull. In fact, let’s grab the Raging Bull by the horns, because that’s what the clichéd metaphor demands.

Ignoring the fact that I’ve these small hands (what Jake LaMotta would call “little girl hands”), if we hold Martin Scorsese’s masterful biopic to the light and look at it as a whole you realise that, yes, this is a very powerful film. A huge amount of that power comes from Robert De Niro’s portrayal of LaMotta, which may be the greatest acting performance in movie history.

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The most affecting sequences of Raging Bull are the parts where LaMotta is left totally alone, stripped bare and forced to face his own monstrosity without anyone else to blame or spar with (verbally or physically). Out of all the moments – the actual fights, the “you fuck my wife?” scene, etc. – the point in the film where the self-destructive beast finds himself shut in a jail cell and howls and hammers the walls with impotent, directionless rage is the most brutal of them all.

Trapped in a box room of pain and anger with the antihero, the audience has no escape and is forced to adopt the position of LaMotta with all his darkness. It is terrifying and it is tragic. He’s a brutish wrecking ball who destroys everything around him and he’s become trapped in a cage of rage, violence and brutality, totally disgraced and debased.

He represents the lowest depths that humanity can sink to and with no way out of the cell, we’re forced to bear witness to the boxer’s sorry state and contemplate ourselves at our potential worst: primal, pathetic and totally alone with our irrepressible inner ugliness.

Here in this sorry excuse for a film student examination of Raging Bull, we see the commanding protagonist, who forms the core of the story and the space, or rather, lack of, combining to immense, unsettling effect. This leads me to remember and appreciate classic movies that confine themselves to a single setting for their entire length, like the jury room of 12 Angry Men and excellent Alfred Hitchcock experiments like Lifeboat and Rope.

Those goldie oldies, however, have a full ensemble cast all sharing the space. That doesn’t diminish the claustrophobia or the tension, but when it’s just one solitary figure left to face that closed setting on their own, the end result is psychologically harrowing cinema.

There’s a bit of that in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, where Catherine Deneuve cracks up in her apartment and in Taxi Driver (another disturbing Scorsese and De Niro masterpiece) when Travis Bickle starts getting really mad and threatening his reflection in the mirror.

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By the looks of things, we’ll get more agonising isolation when Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is released early next year. It promises James Franco caught in a canyon, trapped by a boulder and completely alone for five days, during which he is forced to amputate his arm. Travel off the beaten track has never seemed so attractive.

For now, though, we have Buried pulling together a single character and a single enclosed setting to brutal effect. It’s Ryan Reynolds in a coffin, stuck underground in his wooden prison, somewhere in Iraq with only distant, disinterested voices on the phone for company. It’s intense. It’s harrowing. It left me in shock and plunged me into a dark abyss of morbid dread. I recommend that you see it when you’re feeling perky, safe and pretty good about the world, perhaps with a sugary drink if you reckon you require some extra support. Don’t see it as a first date movie.

I don’t want to discourage those that haven’t experienced Buried from seeing it, and wish to praise the film, but it’s bloody hard to endorse the Rodrigo Cortés thriller as a film I ‘enjoyed’ when it is so overbearingly bleak. It is an astounding production, though, and nothing like the gimmick flick it could be perceived as. It’s a deep work (no pun intended) that’s rooted in really heavy stuff and definitely not a flimsy little idea dragged out to a feature-length runtime.

It is horrifying, but not for standard scary movie film reasons. The premise of an everyman (Ryan Reynolds playing Paul Conroy) getting buried alive in a coffin is unnerving. Likewise, so is the race against time aspect with the phone battery dwindling, the clock ticking down on ransom demands, oxygen running out and suffocating sand coming in through the cracks.

The true horror, however, is in the philosophies and messages that follow from the scenario. He’s an average civilian who, through the quirks of fate and misfortune, finds himself condemned to confront a Houdini-esque nightmare. He’s been randomly kidnapped and held hostage because of others’ misdirected greed and wider world affairs way beyond his control.

Conroy has a mobile phone, though, which offers hope and the possibility that he might find freedom and not die in subterranean solitude somewhere in the desert. What the technological lifeline really does, however, is bring crushing disappointment and prolonged despair.

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Help? The voices on the other end are either aggressive kidnappers making threats, answer machines, dispassionate jobsworths or patronising pen pushers. Everyone is looking out for their own interests or the interests of the company and couldn’t give a rat’s arse about poor, perishing Ryan Reynolds.

No one cares. He is a doomed, powerless individual who has been placed in mortal peril against his will. The concern and conviction to assist him is lacking and he’s pretty much left to die in solitary confinement all because he was unlucky enough to end up as collateral damage in affairs and games beyond his influence. He doesn’t deserve it and the dragging out of his torment over the course of 90 minutes that we empathetically experience through him is excruciating.

You will lose faith in humanity and the Universe. The explicit reading I take from Buried is this: you are truly alone, no one cares about you and you live a worthless, doomed existence in a pre-prepared chasm of death.

I don’t think my small hands can handle this horror.

James’ previous column can be found here.

To see James’ movie-spoof comic strips, click here.

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