Saturday, April 23, 2016

Buried Alive (1990)

Clint (Tim Matheson) and Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh) Goodman are the kind of incompatible couple careers in marriage counselling are built on. He’s a country boy construction businessman who takes the first opportunity to drag his wife out of the city and return to his hometown even though he knows that she’s a city gal with some rather unrealistic ideas of a luxury life by heart and inclination. He wants a baby, she really rather doers not  - though he doesn’t know that. He clearly loves her, but doesn’t know her at all.

To nobody’s surprise but Tim’s, Joanna has an affair. Her lover is the sleazy physician Cort van Owen (William Atherton). Cort is rather keen on Joanna murdering her husband so they can sell his company and found a clinic for the rich and famous in LA with the gains. Or so he says. Cort’s rather pushy about the whole thing too, providing Joanna with pep talks and poison like the ugliest femme fatale you ever put eyes on. Joanna, neither the brightest nor the most stable of persons, dithers a bit, but then decides to go through with the murder. Clint goes down in an unpleasant and obviously painful manner, and things seem to go well for Joanna and Cort. Alas, during her dithering, Joanna has lost enough of the poison to not actually kill Clint but only put him into suspended animation, so Clint can make his way out of his coffin to take vengeance. A vengeance that becomes decidedly cruel once he overhears that Joanna secretly had an abortion, too.

Frank Darabont’s Buried Alive is a surprisingly nasty little film, particularly if you keep in mind it is actually a TV movie. However, if not for the very harmless sexual content and lack of blood, it’d be hard to actually realize this watching it. While the film takes place in only a handful of sets and locations, this doesn’t feel like a film not being as epic in its approach as it wants to be but rather like the sharp focus it is.

The film also doesn’t look like a TV movie, with neither film stock nor visual style of the sort you’d expect. It’s just a tight, focused and nice looking film. Sure, the plot is pretty simple and straightforward (and if you think too much about it, not terribly plausible) but Darabont treats it with so much concentration and clarity this doesn’t feel like a weakness but rather a strength, more as if we were watching an archetypal tale than a clichéd one.

The film does play a bit with its tropes too: a man, Atherton’s van Owen, has the femme (homme) fatale role in the plot, while Leigh’s Joanna is more the patsy usually played by guys like Robert Mitchum who lets herself control by him and doesn’t even stop at murder. There’s also an interesting shift in sympathy going on, with Clint’s revenge going so far it’s difficult not to sympathize with Joanna, particularly since Clint isn’t exactly innocent in the whole situation, though I’m not completely convinced the film is doing this shift on purpose. It might just be pretty damn reactionary towards abortion.

The acting’s as strong as the film deserves, with Leigh providing her role with considerably more weight than you’d expect in this set-up and Matheson unexpectedly shining when he comes back as the rather monstrous avenger, instead of just when he’s doing his usual nice (if stupid) guy bit at the start.

It’s all rather wonderful, really.

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