The moment he hopped to the status of a leading man with his turn as Van Wilder, Ryan Reynolds has found a definitive “type” in terms of the big-screen roles he plays. The actor regularly plays sarcastic guys who talk a mile a minute and have enough self-assured confidence to say whatever thought, no matter how vulgar, pops into their head. It’s a trait that’s only gotten more noticeable once those qualities were portrayed through the character of Deadpool.
But no actor is just one archetype and Reynolds has also stretched himself a bit over the years to tackle more complicated roles. These forays tended to happen in independent features, specifically ones made between 2010 and 2015. The majority of these titles happened after the back-to-back failures of Green Lantern and The Change-Up put the concept of Reynolds as a mainstream leading man in jeopardy. Suddenly, Reynolds was doing more challenging parts in projects like The Voices, Mississippi Grind, and The Captive, all roles that began to reshape the idea of what this performer was capable of.
The very best of Reynolds’ indie forays, as well as his greatest overall turn as an actor, came at the start of his pursuit of offbeat projects with the 2010 title Buried. Directed by Rodrigo Cortés, Buried is the tale of Paul Conroy (Reynolds), a truck driver encased in a coffin placed deep underneath the ground. All he has by his side are a handful of rudimentary objects like a Zippo lighter and a phone with limited battery life. Through a series of phone calls, Conroy tries his best to secure any kind of help while also getting fleeting details about the people who put him underground. More importantly, he tries to concoct an escape plan.
Through this storyline, Buried strips away everything audiences find recognizable in a typical Ryan Reynolds performance. Rather than exuding bravado, Reynolds is in a constant panic. This is not an expert assassin that shouldn’t have been crossed, this is an everyman who has no clue what to do in this scenario. It’s also a bleak movie that only gets increasingly somber as it goes along. Cortés doesn’t try to lean on Reynolds to deliver comedy that can provide an escape from this atmosphere. Instead, he and his lead actor both simply commit to the inherent gruesomeness of this premise.
Oh, and all of the action in Buried is limited to one place — in this case, the inside of a coffin. This massive restriction is something that could have served as the kiss of death for other actors, who could have indulged in too hammy of a performance to compensate for the lack of storytelling scope. Reynolds, in a welcome surprise, thrives in this environment. Taking away his default performance traits and restricting him to one locale brings out the best in this man as an actor.
Reynolds conveys a sense of realism quite naturally in this performance rather than just leaning on his typical silver screen persona, resonating as someone reacting just how the audience would in this scenario. Much of these messily frantic responses are built on a stripped-down survival instinct that Reynolds also plays nicely. Like an animal with its foot caught in a trap, Conroy is doing everything possible to survive another day and Reynolds captures this singular determination with raw intensity.
Even better, Reynolds proves engaging in the emotional sequences of Buried. In particular, the actor excels in a scene where Conroy manages to call up his Alzheimer’s-ridden mother. It’s an exchange that isn’t full of tidy bits of emotional catharsis. Conroy understands this could be his last conversation with his mom, yet it doesn’t go the way he’s expecting given the mental state his mother is in. There are so many complicated emotions swirling around just this one phone call and Reynolds, impressively, manages to make each complicated detail feel vividly real.
This is extra impressive given how this scene restricts Reynolds from using his entire body. In this phone call to his mom, the character of Conroy is captured from just the neck up, with certain shots even obscuring much of his face. This is the most extreme example of Buried’s restrictive filmmaking, as here Reynolds is left with only his vocals to work with. But even with minimal tools at his disposal, Reynolds still captures the nuances and intensity flowing through every word Conroy delivers. In the process, he crafts a fully formed new character and not just a new iteration of his typical movie star persona.
This entire production is resting upon Reynolds’s shoulders; if he hit a false note in tackling the character of Paul Conroy, everything would collapse like a house of cards during an earthquake. But through channeling levels of depth he’s rarely exhibited as a performer, Reynolds makes Buried work. If this whole gimmick of being stuck in a coffin sounds like it can’t sustain a feature-length production, Reynolds’ performance will shove that thought out of your mind. When he’s on-screen, you’re immersed in Conroy’s struggle, not looking at your watch.
Reynolds proves so good in Buried that you can’t help but wonder what would have happened if movies like this had defined his career. If there was no Deadpool, would Reynolds have found another blockbuster franchise to occupy his time? Or would he have continued down the path of doing more indie titles? Maybe he would have become a mainstay of challenging small-scale cinema, playing more vulnerable and complicated individuals than the mainstream characters he’s been largely associated with. Deadpool took Reynolds to new box office heights, but it also took him away from some of his most thoughtful works as an actor.
Whatever that timeline looks like, we’ll never know. But in between Deadpool movies and Netflix blockbusters, at least Reynolds has managed to deliver a handful of memorable low-key performances over the years, particularly with his work in Buried. On paper, his role sounds like a cramped nightmare that gives him nothing — no props, no detailed sets, no onscreen scene partners — to bounce off of. Turns out, this guy doesn’t need any of that to give an engaging performance. Even while playing a character with limited oxygen, Reynolds effortlessly breathes life into the finer intricacies of Buried’s protagonist.
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