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Monday, 18 October 2010

Bogged Down and Buried

Coming out of Buried, the friend with me said “that didn’t turn out the way I thought it would”. Even though I disagreed – it turned out exactly the way I thought it would, and the only way it ever could have turned out from about half an hour in – I knew exactly what he meant. Buried is a movie about a man (Ryan Renyolds) buried alive in a coffin: the last thing you’d expect from a synopsis like that is [SPOILER] he never gets out.

My friend went in expecting to see a Hollywood high-concept thriller much like any other, the kind where, for all the strengths of the high concept (they’re trapped on a bus that can’t slow down! They’re stuck on a plane with a killer!), the last 20 minutes end up being a chase after the bad guys who set up the high concept. Nobody really likes those endings, but in a thriller they’re needed: you can’t just let the bad guys get away now, can you? Unless you’re making the original version of The Vanishing, and even then [SPOILER] the buried alive ending there was a final shock twist, not something the entire film was built around.

Buried avoids the need for that kind of thriller payback ending – despite having at least one clear-cut villain - by stressing almost from the very beginning that this is a film about the Iraq war. It’s set in Iraq in 2006, our lead is a truck driver whose convoy was attacked, and he’s been buried alive as part of an extortion racket designed to extract money from the US.

Once that door is open narrative-wise, once you say “this is a film about something real, not just a man buried alive”, then the film is free to go in a different direction. In the real world hostages die; in a thriller, only the bad guys (and background characters) bite the dust. If the hero does die in a traditional thriller, it’s a heroic death that has real meaning; for all intents and purposes, Buried starts out with the lead already dead.

Part of the appeal of the “based on a true story” film is that it doesn’t have to follow traditional narrative structures. A plot twist that would be outlandish and laughable in a fictional movie becomes tolerable when we’re told it really did happen. Buried isn’t based on a true story, but by setting itself in a real place and time – a place and time where a lot of stories did end very badly – it’s able to successfully access a conclusion that wouldn’t be open to it if it had just been a generic thriller about someone buried in a box somewhere… well, generic.

Buried’s ending works because it’s set in a location where, for a number of years in the very recent past the very basis of the heroic ideal that thrillers are built upon has been proven to be a lie. Even then, it took years and years of the senseless waste of human lives in a war now generally seen as completely pointless to create one mainstream movie as up front about the failure of the thriller narrative (in contrast to the numerous and usually heavy-handed movies about the failure of the war itself) as Buried.

That’s more a sign of how safe and generic mainstream film-making has become in the 21st century than anything else (40 years ago a James Bond movie could end with Bond getting married then seeing his wife gunned down in front of him); hopefully future film-makers won’t need the equivalent of the Iraq War to take their stories somewhere beyond another final bad-guy beat-down. After all, it was that payback-driven attitude that helped start the Iraq War in the first place.

Anthony Morris

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