Buried’s greatest success is its feel, quite literally. Mostly unknown Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes, with an able assist from a shockingly good turn from Ryan Reynolds as the only human body to appear physically on screen, excel at making us feel everything, from the minute, finger-twitching details up to the all-consuming oppressive fact of desperation at its most unadorned. Cortes’ story has begun before the film, but for the narrative he is choosing to tell he opens at the literal moment of most importance: Ryan Reynolds waking up in a coffin in Iraq, buried alive and with nothing to hold him over but a phone and a lighter. The crushing primitive quality of the box itself, the muddy fact of the earth weighing it down, the sweat on Reynolds’ face keeping his physical form from drying out even as each drop loosens one last bit of his soul from his body; all come alive under Cortes’ attuned hand and meticulous gaze. His shot selection is note-perfect, hugely varied but never indulgent, and always well aware of the power of a stagnant camera and the verisimilitude of natural lighting. It’s a very tactile film, a work of tension and bluntness that feels emotion right down to its bone, and Reynolds in particular is in spellbindingly sweaty, nervous form throughout.
When Buried is on, it’s way on. Director Rodrigo Cortes and star Ryan Reynolds are so good at creating the tangible precision and material emotion the film excels at that they are almost skilled enough to move us one step ahead of the film’s blunders. Almost. The political throughline of the film, for one, manages the dubious feat of being both overblown and underdeveloped, and if the film has a bone to pick with ex-President Bush and his boys, the time spent is wasted blowing off steam. On a primitive level the film works wonders, but when it suddenly has a hint of the nobles in its teary eye and sniffled nose, things lose their way. It works as a study in base-level humanity confronting one of the most low-hanging, all-knowing fears in the world, not as a film that exists in a “real world” and confronts the more complex problems of that world. The former requires sharp, attuned filmmaking, and the latter requires a really dynamite, textured screenplay, and this is not a benefit Buried knows well. The only real part of the film that this becomes a significant problem, however, is the very end (a film ending badly, naw, that’s impossible!). Cortes grossly miscalculates the spirit of his work in a nasty-minded, cheap false ending that is grossly out of touch with the film it proceeds, slopping on the tears for a stab to the gut that feels less honest than indulgent.
And naturally there are the expected logical holes – everyone seems to point out the snake, and yes the film would be tighter and less questionably extended if the snake scene was cut out wholesale. At the very least though the sequence comes and goes in fine form, where-as that political diatribe going on keeps rearing its ugly head and comes so close to bordering on exploitation it’s almost offensive. Still, in the final analysis, the forced politicking that remains ever un-incorporated into the film (managing the unenviable feat of seeming at once over-zealous and underdeveloped) is a minor quibble on an otherwise form-fitting, ready-to-rumble, darkly compelling treat. It’s rare these days that we have a thriller that goes all out and maintains the simplicity of its fantastically straightforward, unornamented concept. Buried gets us most of the way there, and if the forced airs it puts on threaten to knock the wind out of it too early, “most of the way” to great is still pretty darn good in the end.
With Ben Affleck the hot commodity these days, the once-maligned actor well on his way to A-list director status finds himself at a cusp: go down the red carpet brick road and win over the masses, or stick to his guns. His Best Picture-winning Argo caught him in the spotlight cautiously edging toward the former and directing what increasingly seems like his most muted, apathetic motion picture (still pretty solid though, just no match for the more down-and-dirty danger of his first two films). He’s proven himself at least a hyper-competent filmmaker; he just needs that extra spark to push him over the edge (and hopefully not the somewhat problematically even-keeled spark given to Argo’s not-quite-there treatment of the modern Middle East, tempered only by his semi-subversive understanding of film history). So far it seems like the spark that lights him most brightly is his long-suffering Charlestown, Boston. If not his home-town, it is at least a creative muse, a location that inspires passion in him, and he is always at his best when working class Boston is neighboring his soul.
Thankfully, Affleck never treated Boston more passionately than he did with his sophomore effort behind the camera, the crackerjack pot-boiler The Town. The film’s vision of Charlestown is grimy and even melancholic in a way that grants it an almost limbo-like quality, fashioning it as a place where lost souls go to wither away. There’s a truth to Charlestown’s low-key suffering, but Affleck conspicuously films with a pensive eye for desolate spaces and gaps, his camera poised and penitent when approached with the less-the-wholesome pasts of his characters and the undernourished locales they inhabit. Meanwhile, cinematographer Robert Elswit affords the film a certain muted, monochromatic, even ghostly palette that does wonders for capturing with the air of a slight fable how empty and individualized Charlestown is, as though any sense of working-class community had been sapped and the location stricken of any personality excepting its own decay.
It’s a lovely box within which to grease and fine-tune a well-oiled, intricate machine of a film, a simple, elegant little thriller that prances out with a somewhat tired baseline – a bank robber (Ben Affleck) doing his not-so-damnedest to get out of the field and come to terms with the sins of his past– and does its best to generally not focus on the somewhat tepid emotional and mental tension of the idea in favor of a more pleasingly razor-edged slice of rolling, tumbling action and sharply-tuned style. It’s perhaps unexpected to say, but The Town works because it keeps things so low to the ground and never tries to rise above its relatively straightforward heist film through-line. It is not great filmmaking, and it lacks the nihilistic death drive of something like Gone Baby Gone, but Affleck the director and (surprisingly) Affleck the actor are on very sturdy ground throughout.