Directed By: Rodrigo Cortés
Written By: Chris Sparling
Produced By: Adrián Guerra, Peter Safran
Cast: Ryan Reynolds
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 94 minutes
Release Date: September 24, 2010
Review Date: September 24, 2010
Buried never cheats. It seems a simple thing to point out but is vitally important to the film’s success. Here is the story of a man, buried alive in a barebones wooden coffin, that does not once leave him. Somehow, director Rodrigo Cortés works a notch below minimalism.
In the hour and a half the film runs, there are no cuts away to worrying family members at home, frantic military personnel scavenging the desert, or smarmy tech guys and gals tracing calls and moving satellites. It is a man in a box, covered by a few feet of sand. He provides his own lighting with a lighter, a glow stick, a flashlight, or the cell phone that his captors have left him.
When there is no light, it is not the fake darkness of movies; the screen goes black. It is what we see at the start. All we hear is the breath of a man asleep or unconscious. There’s a coughing fit, and the breathing gets heavier. There’s scrambling and then yelling — the sound of his voice is pure, unadulterated by any barriers, confined to this tight space. A lighter is struck, struck, struck — a frustrating sound made maddening — until it is lit.
Here now is the man. He is Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds, solid in a one-man show). He looks around him, and the camera does an impossible upside-down pan from his face to his feet. We now see the situation with which he is dealing: maybe half-a-foot of open space along the length of his body and mere inches in front of him.
With only a few exception in which Cortés turns the lid imaginary for overhead shots of Paul’s whole body (including one in which he seems to at the bottom of a never-beginning pit), this is the film’s space. Cortés and cinematographer Eduard Grau make use of every conceivable position and angle for the camera. It holds close to his face, stares down at his feet, and holds tight to a corner watching him struggle to turn his entire body around. The different light sources lend varying but unified tones, whether it’s the sickly green of the glow stick, the maddening red of a flashlight covered by a palm, or the flickering halo of the lighter. Visually, the film is never boring.
The other end of the plot of a man locked in a box is that he has to attempt to get out. The cell phone, with a display in Arabic, comes in handy here. He calls home. He calls his wife’s friend, who answers but hangs up on him when he starts yelling. He calls 911, the FBI, the State Department, and anyone he can think of that might be able to help him. If people answer the phone, he is put on hold or transferred to some other person who might know more but probably doesn’t. The large majority of them are useless. They want his location, his job, his employer, his social security number. All Paul remembers is driving a truck full of non-military supplies somewhere in Iraq and an ambush.
There’s a comedy of errors unfolding on the other end of the line in Chris Sparling’s screenplay. So many procedures and so much bureaucracy, the only person who is straightforward with his purpose (other than Paul, of course) is Paul’s captor (voice of José Luis García Pérez). He wants five million dollars and demands that Paul make a video of him reading a statement with the phone’s camera. Paul tries to reason with him to no avail. The kidnapper hears “American,” and automatically thinks soldier; he hears “contracted worker,” and assumes Blackwater. No one will pay that much money for him, Paul says, and an infuriating conversation with a human resources rep (voice Stephen Tobolowsky), trying to cover the company’s ass, proves that.
There’s another man who could help. Dan Brenner (voice of Robert Paterson) runs a military unit established just for this sort of hostage situation. He talks in soothing language and promises that, yes, some people are rescued — not many but some. They are all voices that Paul can only trust will do what they say.
Buried starts with a claustrophobic premise and encloses the walls further while opening the main character up to the outside world. If a man is buried alive and he doesn’t make the 24-hour news cycle, does anyone care?
Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.