In an era where many moviemakers put every effort into putting more and more on screen, and even extending it beyond the screen with 3-D, it’s nice to know than others are still experimenting with doing less. Take director Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried (Lionsgate DVD and Blu-ray), the premise of which is any line producer’s dream and any director’s daunting challenge: one character buried in a coffin for 90 minutes. Fortunately, Cortes takes the challenge seriously and delivers a dynamic treatment of what is, essentially, the ultimate static situation. Unfortunately, Buried overall doesn’t quite deserve digging up.
The first minute or two of Buried promises great things. The post-credits screen goes dark, the soundtrack music fades, and viewers are left to sit in black silence. It continues past the predictable few beats. It stretches toward a minute, maybe more. It gets to be an uncannily uncomfortable experience, waiting for something to happen. It’s a psychological tweak that the rest of the film fails to live up to. Because, boy, does stuff start happening.
Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian contractor driving supply trucks in Iraq who’s being held for ransom after being abducted in a deadly convoy attack. But he’s been left with a lighter, so he (and we) can see, plus a cellphone, because how else would his kidnappers torment him and ask him to make a ransom video? But wait, why didn’t they make a video before they buried him? And how are they so sure that post-war Iraq’s surely stellar cell service would reach a coffin buried several feet underground? Regardless, Paul’s soon talking to 911, his wife, the FBI, the State Department, a hostage-rescue team, random neighbors, the kidnappers—he’s on the phone more than a teenage girl, and generating more drama, too. And that’s before the snake. And the fire. And the partial collapse. And the pulse-pounding denouement.
Cortes proves himself an adroit director (and editor), coming up with an ingenious array of shots and strategies to keep the visual storytelling moving. Reynolds holds his own, though his studly action-star vibe makes him perhaps slightly less than ideal for the sort of everyman that might have made this story resonate more than it does. What might have made this story resonate most is less story—less frantic plot turning, fewer complications, more exploration of the quiet, endless yawning dread inherent in the premise.
Devil (Universal DVD and Blu-ray) has even more going on, but then it has a little more room to maneuver. The B-horror flick focuses on a high-rise building elevator car, which has mysteriously stalled, trapping five assorted strangers, one of whom may be the devil. While director John Eric Dowdle (who made a modest horror-genre splash in 2008 with the respectable Quarantine) has to work within the paneled and mirrored walls of a tiny space as the suspicions fly and the bodies drop, he also gets to get out of the box, so to speak, to follow a police detective with a tragic past (Chris Messina) and various other building personnel and would-be rescuers as they race from the basement to the roof and back again trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.
Devil was produced by and originated from a story from M. Night Shyamalan, as the first installment of an ostensible series of modestly budgeted Shyamalan-esque flicks called “The Night Chronicles.” Let us all pause just a moment to chuckle at that, shall we? As one might expect from a Shyamalan project, it’s fairly well made and twisty to an annoying if unpredictable degree. A decent little genre workout and no more.
No one on recent new-release lists does more with a confined space than Israeli writer/director Samuel Maoz. His debut fictional feature, Lebanon (Sony Pictures Classics), takes place entirely inside an Israeli tank during the 1982 war with the titular country. Why isn’t the tank movie as much a subgenre staple as the submarine movie? Okay, it lacks the whole crushing pressures/endless depths/silent running thing, sure, but Maoz creates such a tense and tantalizingly specific experience that it’d surely be worth revisiting.
New guy Shmulik (Yoav Donat) joins up with an established tank crew (Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, and Michael Moshonov) to support a paratroop platoon as they clear hostile forces from a Lebanese town. Within minutes, the war turns to hell. By not firing his main gun when ordered, Shmulik gets a fellow Israeli killed. When he fires as ordered next time, he maims an innocent farmer. From there, the crew’s experiences only get more agonizing and surreal.
Maoz, who served in the Lebanon War himself, creates an indelible environment inside the tank: cramped, smoky, dripping with petrochemicals and condensation, crammed with sweaty, dirty, terrified men. Meanwhile, Shmulik watches the war unfold through his scope, able to zoom right in on the most horrific sights of urban combat, yet insulated from the realities outside by inches of armor plating. That scope and its mobile, highly directed perspective keeps Lebanon from feeling too stagey as tempers flare and nerves fray inside the turret. The long line of excellent anti-war films has an eager new recruit.