Welcome to fall! Fall means the end of summer, which means a change in tone at the multiplex, which this year, for some mysterious reason, means two (2) movies that take place entirely or almost entirely in a claustrophobically confined space wherein the young male protagonist is trapped and fighting for his life. Even stranger than the release of two such films in close proximity to each other is the fact that both of them, despite seemingly belonging to the awards-starved horror genre, appear to be, at least at this early stage, serious Oscar contenders in at least one category. Here at Cinematical, we thought it would be good to give you this pocket-size rundown of how Danny Boyle's '127 Hours' (due November 5) stacks up against Rodrigo Cortes' 'Buried' (September 24). After all, as both movies amply demonstrate, it's good to be prepared.
Site of Confinement: A narrow rock crevasse in Utah's Canyonlands National Park, where Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, really did get his right arm trapped under a boulder in 2003, when he was 28.
How He Got There: On a day hike, after impressing some pretty girls with a secret underground lagoon, the stone floor below him shifts, and he falls into a hole along with the rock that ends up pinning his arm for the next five days.
Supplies: A half-full Nalgene, a few snacks, some climbing equipment, a video camera.
Tenor of Lead Performance: Cocky hotshot humbled by life-changing experience.
Gruesomeness: Very high. If you know the true story, you know how Ralston ultimately gets out, and rest assured that you see and hear the process in excruciating detail. (If you don't know the story and would like to, here's a fun video.) Paramedics were called due to fainting at the film's first two premiere screenings at Telluride, which got blown a bit out of proportion since Telluride audiences are kind of sissies (God love 'em), but still gives you an idea of what you're in for.
Time Spent Trapped with the Protagonist: Roughly 70%. There's an energetic, typically Boyle-esque opening and coda, as well as a series of flashbacks and hallucinations throughout the confinement. Which is not to say we don't spend enough time with Ralston in the canyon. You'll be more than glad to get out of there, by the end.
Moral of the Story: Bad things can happen to anyone, so don't be a d*ck.
Oscar Chances: Medium-high. A 'Slumdog Millionaire'-like raid seems unlikely – mostly because of the relative level of difficulty – but Franco is terrific, and seems destined for a nom.
Site of Confinement: A wooden coffin, where the wholly fictional Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up to find himself buried several feet underground.
How He Got There: Kidnapped and deposited.
Supplies: A cell phone, a pencil, a Zippo lighter, glow sticks, a flashlight, some booze.
Tenor of Lead Performance: Panicked and desperate; righteously indignant.
Gruesomeness: Medium. There is some blood late in the film, but it is not graphic. The biggest problem is, of course, claustrophobia, and the movie really makes you feel it. I'm not afflicted, but I still very much squirmed in my seat for the first fifteen minutes or so.
Time Spent Trapped with the Protagonist: 100%, not including any potential rescue.
Moral of the Story: Everyday Americans got totally hosed in the Iraq War. How the movie gets there from here, I leave for you to discover.
Oscar Chances: Low. Unlike '127 Hours', which is ultimately an uplifting Danny Boyle picture, this remains very much a horror flick, albeit an allegorical one. Ryan Reynolds is just fine, and holds the screen for the entire 88-minute running time, but the film being what it is, the Oscar buzz around his performance seems likely to peter out.
OSCAR EDGE: '127 Hours'.
CRITICAL EDGE: 'Buried'. I like both films very much, but the merciless, deeply ironic, expertly executed genre edge of Rodrigo Cortes's brutal little thriller is ultimately more my speed. Your mileage may vary.