Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest fear, which he expressed in many of his stories, was fear of being buried alive. In stories such as “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Premature Burial” and “The Black Cat,” his words produce an atmosphere of terror and, even more importantly, claustrophobia that trap the reader just as they do the character. It’s powerful stuff, and I’ve never really see any movie come close to duplicating it, until I watched BURIED tonight. Director Rodrigo Cortés’ use of 2:35 : 1 aspect ratio captures what it must be like to be trapped in a coffin, better than anything I’ve previously seen.
A brief explanation of aspect ratio. Expressed in a pair of numbers, the second of which is always 1, it defines what the image of a movie will look like. The larger the first number, the wider the screen horizontally, but the narrower from top to bottom. Old TVs, the ones that are almost square, have a 1:33 : 1 aspect ratio. Many filmmakers prefer 1:85 : 1, because there’s only so much screen to fill. 2:35 : 1 is the chosen format for fare such as biblical dramas and Westerns, where the scope of things is always epic, both visually and storywise.
BURIED isn’t epic in either way. It’s the story of Paul, an American contractor who through an unfortunate set of circumstances, ends up buried in a coffin in the Iraqi desert. It’s a very personal story that takes place in a box. The aspect ratio works brilliantly for exactly the opposite reason it works brilliantly in those Bible and horse stories. Because it uses its horizontal fit and vertical narrowness to present just about the width and height of a coffin.
Paul’s situation is dire. The movie starts off in total darkness. We hear him stir, and then start to scratch around. Several seconds go by, and then we see him, trapped in a box. It’s dark, and there’s not much space. His convoy was attacked earlier, and he’s being used by Iraqi insurgents as a pawn for $5 million. They’ve left him with a cell phone, a lighter, a flashlight, a glow stick and a note he’s supposed to read. As the film goes by, in real time, Paul will speak with his kidnaper, his employer and a hostage counselor, among others. Things get progressively worse as the 95 minutes go by, and by the time the end credits started to roll, I almost felt as if I couldn’t breathe.
This film could have been a bore. After all, it’s 95 minutes of a guy in a box. Cortés never allows that to happen, and it starts and ends with his camera. The top of the screen essentially functions as the coffin’s lid. It’s omnipresent, holding both Paul and the audience in that dark box. The whole film takes places from a small number of camera angles. That may seem obvious (how many angle can the director use, given the area he’s shooting?), but they show just how limited the inside of the coffin is. There’s only one angle I don’t like, that records Paul from high above, as if the sand above is transparent; it breaks up the tension, and unlike any other, it’s a cheat. But every other angle works powerfully, and Cortés’ shot selection keeps the film moving, even if the character can’t move at all. The closeups are especially effective, as the camera locks in tightly on Paul’s face, as if the whole world has crushed down.
As his situation worsens, the box seems to tighten, leaving Paul, and us, with less space. Cortés plays this to his advantage. When he has to fend off a visitor, and there’s a mishap with the glow stick, the confines offer no chance of escape. It’s not the only time an outside invader looms, as a bombing starts to send sand into the coffin. Setting starts to affect character, with Paul becoming more and more frantic as the film goes on. Credit Ryan Reynolds, who I’ve always thought was an underrated actor, with selling the desperation of the situation. According to the IMDb, the actor actually became claustrophobic toward the end of the 17 day shoot. His realistic portrayal and chronic freak outs make the box the scary place it should be.
In the end, this is a film about death, and our fear of it. The mood is terror, and it goes all the way back to Poe’s stories of premature burials and drunks being encased inside walls. We’re all headed for the tomb eventually, and I hope I only arrive there after death. On a grander scale, it’s a metaphor for all the situations we feel trapped by in our everyday lives, whether it’s unemployment or the bad relationship we can’t seem to get out of. It’s one of those primal fears we all carry around. This is an excellent example of form fitting function, as the aspect ratio embodies that fear to sweet perfection.
After I finished BURIED, I had to decompress with some cheerier fare. So I looked in my Netflix queue and flipped on TOY STORY 3. And damned if I wasn’t a little tense when Buzz Lightyear and friends were being carried in a cardboard box with the lid closed. Thank God the animated flick was in 1:85 : 1, or I might have had a coronary. Credit Rodrigo Cortés’ expert use of the 2:35 : 1 aspect ratio for making the inside of a coffin look and feel exactly like I expect one would look and feel. And hey, I was content in the knowledge that no insurgent was going to ask Woody to cut off his own finger.