Spending 90 minutes trapped in a cramped space with a sweaty Ryan Reynolds? Doesn’t sound like a bad start for large swaths of the population. Buried is a small indie experiment that places Reynolds in exceedingly tight quarters. Paul is an American contractor driving trucks over in Iraq. Insurgents ambushed his convoy. He awakens to find himself trapped in a coffin and buried under the earth. Packed away inside with him are a lighter, a pen, and most importantly, a cell phone. Can your carrier get you coverage buried under the Iraqi desert? Time to switch, my friends.
For those left curious, yes, it really does take place entirely within a coffin. The entire 95 minutes are spent inside the small space. There is nary a flashback or even a visual insert to be had. You are trapped in that box just like Paul. The film is effectively claustrophobic. Director Rodrigo Cortes (The Contestant) gets terrific mileage out of his ultra confined space. The creative combination of angles, lighting, and nimble camerawork ensure that audiences do not grow tired of seeing the same 6 x 3″ of set. You can practically taste the sweat and dank air on screen. Buried has the most inspired camerawork I’ve seen in a film since 2006’s Children of Men. Cortes has only so much space to room to work and yet he does a magnificent job of manipulating the space to accentuate Paul’s fears and isolation. There are a few shots where the camera seems to keep zooming out, further and further, much further than the ceiling of that box would allow, like Paul is sinking below the sand.
The script by Chris Sparling is agile and resourceful and keeps finding news ways to keep your eyes glued to the screen. The movie is consumed by that nerve-wracking sense of urgency. The first minute and a half of the film is in darkness, and we awaken to the terror of the situation just as Paul does. Including a cell phone seems like a necessary screenwriting plot device. If Paul awoke by his lonesome, the movie would turn into 90 minutes of watching a guy screaming himself hoarse and clawing away at the wooden walls. A cell phone opens up the narrative. Now Paul has something of a fighting chance to survive. It gives him the motivation to survive and adapt to his surroundings during his limited last moments. The cell phone also allows the bad guys to terrorize Paul over and over. They can make increasingly hostile demands even with their hostage lodged six feet under ground. The demands for money get more and more aggressive, leading to one-sided negotiations, like Paul filming a plea for help that terrorists can exploit and upload to the Internet. The people that Paul does get through to offer little in assistance. To them, it’s just another day going through the same motions, taking down the same messages. Cries for help may not rise above the fray.
The political commentary is, in a word, indelicate. The Iraq War commentary can feel a tad ham-fisted at times in how it wants to boil down and extrapolate Paul as a symbol of the war’s untold hidden human costs. Paul is a contractor paid to ferry supply along the dangerous roads of Iraq. He’s supposed to be seen as “just any guy,” that is, any American Joe. He symbolizes the lost lives that don’t manage to make the news because they don’t have stars and stripes on their uniforms. The Iraq War made use of hundreds of thousands of privet industry contractors, supposedly easing the burden of the U.S. military. Paul is intended to represent the forgotten casualties of war, the people who were merely punching a clock in a foreign land to help their families. The officials that Paul does get through seem more concerned with personal agendas then retrieving an entombed man. The military is concerned, sure, but more interested in locating and killing the terrorists/insurgents that ambushed Paul’s convoy. The State Department is more concerned about containing Paul’s story and ensuring media outlets don’t find out. They’re really worried that any ransom video Paul records will become an Internet sensation, particularly in the dry, dusty part of the world, and become a recruitment tool. Paul’s company is more worried about weaseling out of paying his insurance policy. The movie aims to ask what is the price of one life. Is it just a numbers game? Is losing an American contractor every few weeks worth the price of freedom? What is the definition of an acceptable loss?
The movie is really a one-man show, so it’s fortunate to have an actor of Reynolds capabilities. He’s used to playing charming, self-effacing, fast-talking rascals; he has an innate ability to command your attention and interest. Reynolds gives a deeply empathetic performance. He goes through different stages of emotions, from shock and horror to anger and frustration, to impotence and self-pity, and all the way back again. You will think step-by-step with him as he tries to assess his situation. It’s a performance rooted in manufactured seclusion, something akin to the one-man show that Tom Hanks shared with a scene-stealing volleyball. Except Reynolds’ commitment seems even greater than what Hanks endured; Reynolds face is in every frame of this film. It would have been very easy for an actor to use the situation as an excuse to bounce off the walls, chewing scenery as an effective means of escape. But Reynolds dials down the histrionics. His character feels awkwardly real under the extreme circumstances.
I really enjoyed the concept, execution (the ending is note perfect), but I also found many of Buried‘s smaller moments to be more than worthwhile. When Paul begins to doubt he’ll ever be found in time, he mentally prepares himself for the inevitable. He films a last will and testament to be found with his corpse, whenever he is eventually unearthed. He leaves messages trying to reach out to love ones one last time. And perhaps most heartbreaking of all, Paul tries to reach his elderly mother, an Alzheimer’s patient in a rest home. He desperately wants to hear one last “I love you” from his mother’s voice, but the woman’s brain is a mental carousel and she is unable to comply. I thought about my own acceptance process if I was in Paul’s exact situation, and I know how much significance I would place on achieving some form of saying goodbye. In order to let go I would need to speak to the people closest to me and tell them how important they were, how much they meant to me. To be denied something so vital to acceptance is cruel. And Paul is denied his one last meaningful goodbye, and I found it to be aching and emotionally terrifying.
If you have any minute fear of tiny spaces or being trapped and helpless, then Buried will get under your skin big time. Add the general race-against-time nature of the script and the flick hums with nervous tension. This film is taut like a drum. It’s ridiculously tense. You may start to feel your feet moving, as if you’re trying to push away the space and dig your way out. It’s hard to believe but a movie that takes place entirely inside a box is one of the most inventive, visually appealing, and enjoyable films of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A