Back in 2010, there were two popular movies released which take place entirely (or almost entirely) in a confined space wherein a man is trapped and fighting for his life. The first is 127 Hours starring James Franco and directed by Danny Boyle. It was his follow-up to the immensely successful, Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, and based on the true story of a mountain climber Aron Ralston, and his remarkable adventure to save himself after his right hand was crushed and trapped by a boulder during a freak accident. With 127 Hours, Boyle directed a powerful and compelling story of one man’s will to survive as he examines his life and finds the courage to finally free himself after being trapped for five full days.
The second film is Buried, a first-time feature by Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés. The low-budget thriller follows Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a truck driver and family man, who wakes up buried alive in an old wooden coffin. Not knowing who might have put him there or why his only chance to escape from this nightmare comes the way of a cell phone accidentally left behind. Paul only has only 90 minutes to be rescued but poor reception, battery life, and lack of oxygen become his biggest enemies in a race against time.
As a fan of both films, I decided to go back and revisit each to see if they stand the test of time and decide which is better.
Stuck Between a Rock and A Hard Place
With 127 Hours, Danny Boyle, reteamed with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and carefully adapted Ralston’s memoir Between A Rock and A Hard Place without bending the truth too much. In taking what was very much an interior dialogue, they find new ways to open it up by using flashbacks of Aron’s past, hallucinations, and dream sequences as he drifts into fantasies of possible escape.
Another method in Boyle’s arsenal is switching between the third and first-person point-of-view as Aron records his thoughts with the camcorder. The video diary (something Ralston actually recorded in real life) helps us better understand what he must have felt like every attempt to move the boulder fails, as his water supply starts to run out. These testimonials are the heart of the film – “I wish I had returned all of your phone calls,” Franco says to his mother at one point when keeping a log of his situation. Along with a bird that flew above in the mornings, the camera was Ralston’s only external relationship.
With Buried, Cortés keeps true to his word and delivers everything the premise (or gimmick) promises. The director doesn’t cheat by employing flashbacks or other devices that would take the action beyond the grave. The film’s chief virtue is that it remains true to itself – there are no devious cutaways or flashbacks outside the coffin. All Cortes has to work with are the cell phone calls Paul Conroy makes in hope that someone might locate him. While these phone conversations help flesh out the plot, they also allow us to learn more about Paul’s work, background, family, and his current situation.
Unfortunately, the script plants too many things in the coffin along with our protagonist. Touching upon provocative, timely political issues, Cortéz’s film desperately tries to capture all the hypocrisy, and nonsense of America’s entanglement in the Middle East— but the commentary on bureaucracy and foreign policy just doesn’t work. What does work, however, is the running gag concerning technology. Paul’s efforts to communicate are hindered by poor cellphone reception, answering machines, and inane phone operators who repeatedly put him on hold or transfer him to voice mail. While technology is supposed to make communication easier, here it actually makes it increasingly more difficult.
Both films offer our protagonist a limited number of supplies which they can potentially use to aid in their escape. In Buried, Reynolds is given a cell phone, a pencil, a Zippo lighter, glow sticks, a flashlight and some alcohol. In 127 Hours, James Franco is left with a half-full container of water, a few snacks, some mountain climbing equipment, a small pocket knife and a video camera. These components, coupled with actors willing to go to the nth degree in their performance, is all the directors have to work with, but they make the utmost use of them.
Both films are also blessed with great cinematography and excellent editing…
Cinematographers Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle are at the top of their game with the work they did on 127 hours— taking complete advantage of every little space James Franco occupies. Using the Slumdog Millionaire SI-2K camera, the audience spends a good portion of the 94-minute film trapped alongside Ralston in the narrowest of places as Franco climbs up, down and through the canyon. They rely on two cameras, multiple angles, sharp cuts, and when needed, rapid-fire editing to take what could have been static and dull into something expeditious and inspiring. Through the heightened sound of a tape rewinding or putting the camera inside Franco’s ever depleting water bottle as he searches for the last drop, Boyle arranges sight and sound in ways to transport smell, touch, and taste.
Credit is surely due to editor Jon Harris (Snatch, The Descent, Stardust, Kick-Ass), who packs a sense of urgency into every frame perfectly, cutting his material together with ease. He chops away with hyperactive split-screen montages, bursts of colour, layers of sound design, and even alters the speed from the first frame to the last. The film’s 90-odd minutes are nothing short of visually stunning, technically astounding, and emotionally resonant. Slumdog collaborator A.R. Rahman once again turns in a superb score that is constantly evolving and connecting with the images and urgency of the situation.
Shooting in widescreen (believe it or not), director Rodrigo Cortes immediately begins in total darkness and inside the coffin, no less. Because of this, Buried is somewhat a marvel of cinematic minimalism. Despite the entire film taking place inside the box, Cortéz finds ways to make it all more interesting with varied camera angles, and different instruments that Reynolds finds to light up the set. Cinematographer Eduard Grau does a stellar job in conveying the inner limits of Paul’s tiny prison – the flame from a lighter, the light from a cell phone screen, the illumination of some glow-sticks, he restricts his lighting to whatever sources of illumination Paul has at his disposal. Unfortunately, the claustrophobic feel is at times lost when Cortéz occasionally ‘cheats’, zooming the camera out to show impossible shots of Paul from a distance. Credit is also due to the expertly mixed sound design, the scintillating score by Víctor Reyes, and the pulchritudinous “Saul Bass” credit sequence, all of which is enough to distract you from a wavering screenplay.
James Franco has never been more alive than he is in 127 Hours. His extraordinary portrayal of the famed adventurer is a tour-de-force performance and maybe his best to date. For long stretches, it’s a one man show, and Boyle helps stretch the actor’s extraordinary talents to their fullest. His transformation from confident and charming to emotions of shock, fear, anger, and heartbreak is remarkable.
Buried would not be as effective as it is without the performance of Ryan Reynolds, who sheds his then-clean-cut image (pre-Deadpool) for a darker role. Reynolds has never been a deep actor, but here he captures every emotion that flickers across his face.
Both actors are at the top of their game, but Franco plays alongside the pros while Reynolds is still batting the minors. However, Reynolds spends the entire running time alone where-as Franco is awarded several scenes with other players that help identify his personality. It also doesn’t help that Reynolds is given less convincing dialogue to work with.
Buried is about atmosphere and mood and feeling what it might be like to be trapped in the coffin with the actor, but 127 Hours is the sort of movie that will take your breath away. The final 15 minutes of gut-wrenching terror in 127 Hours is far more terrifying and emotionally powerful than the entire 94 minutes of Buried. In Buried, rather than making a serious and realistic effort to break out of his shallow grave, Conroy carries on endless phone conversations with unseen parties. Meanwhile, back in Utah, James Franco is sawing off his arm and using only a pocketknife to do so. 127 Hours builds to a climax of profound human determination and profound physical pain offering inspiration, exasperation, and blunt realization in a true story of one young man’s will to survive. So strong was his will that he would do anything necessary. Since it was based on a true story, most viewers know how 127 Hours ends, and yet the movie somehow keeps you at the edge of your seat. Buried on the other hand doesn’t have enough material to sustain the 90-minute running time.