Words: Saam Das
'Buried' (UK Release: 29 September 2010)
Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Stephen Tobolowsky, Robert Paterson
'Buried' opens to complete and prolonged darkness. Until, that is, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) finds a cigarette lighter in his pocket, allowing the audience to discover the gravity of his current situation. Conroy is bound and gagged, and worse still, buried alive in a wooden box. For the next ninety minutes, we remain in this box along with Conroy.
Conroy is an American truck driver, working in Iraq as a civilian contractor, in the midst of the "war on terror". The convoy with which he was travelling was attacked by Iraqis. He remembers little of the incident, having been knocked unconscious during the attack. He wakes to find himself in the coffin, with a mobile phone his only connection to the outside world. Conroy's kidnappers are demanding a ransom, his phone battery is running out, and more importantly, so is his oxygen supply.
To venture through the plot would greatly detract from a film like 'Buried', which can only go in a limited direction and thus depends on suspense at every turn. As it happens, it is also a film which bears close resemblance to a 'CSI' episode, which inter-cut the story of the person buried alive with that of his colleagues seeking to rescue him. 'Buried' opts for a more singular approach, confining our perspective to within the wooden box, presumably as part of an examination of human desperation and claustrophobia.
This approach succeeds, to an extent. The palpable desperation of Conroy's attempts to request help over a succession of mobile phone calls is clear. Whether this is a thinly veiled message against the impersonal nature of today's customer service or simply a demonstration that society too easily "looks the other way", I'm not sure. The claustrophobia, however, is a more difficult matter to address. Director Rodrigo Cortés' decision to confine the film within the box obviously has its advantages in producing a sense of claustrophobia. How much of this translates when the film is projected on a massive cinema screen is debatable.
Nonetheless, much credit must go to Cortes, as well as those working on the cinematography and editing teams, for making this minimalist film at least somewhat compelling. Reynolds, too, provides a dramatic performance to silence the critics who pigeon-holed him as a comedy actor. Yet the biggest problem with 'Buried' relates to Reynolds' character, Paul Conroy, and the audience's emotional investment in the character.
I neither felt elation nor crushing disappointment at the ending of 'Buried'. Instead, I was left with a hollow feeling, almost a feeling of dread. I did not care enough for Conroy, despite his innocence in a horrific setting. He is more often than not is lost in the depths of irrationality, admittedly a result of his anxiety and the desperation of his situation. Conversely, there are few moments, such as the heartfelt phone call to his mother in a care home, which help the audience to empathise with Conroy.
I'm left pondering whether some of the dissatisfaction I felt at the film's culmination was actually script writer Chris Sparling's intention all along. The film suggests that like Conroy in his box, America and the coalition forces are trapped in Iraq. At one stage, Conroy comments that he never thought he'd find himself "here". He receives an acute reply from a coalition team member: "I don't think any of us thought we would find ourselves here".
'Buried' overcomes its gimmicky premise with a strong performance from Ryan Reynolds and adept work from director Rodrigo Cortés but ultimately, feels unsatisfying due to the audience's lack of empathy for the central character. At the other end of the spectrum, Stephen Tobolowsky's vocal cameo is wonderfully galling and 'Buried' is arguably worth seeing for his work alone. But perhaps at home, on DVD or Blu-Ray, to further capture the critical sense of claustrophobia that is more difficult to convey on a cinema screen.
'Buried' is in UK cinemas now and on limited release in the US.