Imagine being buried alive, fully aware that each breath you draw is one step closer to impending death. Imagine being bound, placed in a box and buried underground in complete darkness, where the only constant sensory input is the sound of dirt being rhythmically dumped on top of the coffin. Now imagine being relieved of any foreknowledge of such a fate. Would it be a welcome relief not to know, or would you rather go kicking and screaming the whole way? Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is not afforded the luxury (or torture?) of knowing the ‘how’ and ‘why’ aspects. At least initially.
The film opens in complete darkness and the audience is only able to hear as Paul awakens, thrashes around and calls out in vain. Paul realizes he is completely alone, walled in on all sides and the gravity of the situation begins to dawn upon him. Checking around, Paul soon discovers that he is in possession of some tools. Among the items he manages to locate: flashlight, lighter, glowstick, and (the most seemingly helpful) a cell phone. The aforementioned cell phone becomes Paul’s lifeline to the outside, connecting him with both loved ones and various functionally inept agencies more concerned with preserving politics than getting Paul out alive. The kicker is the battery, which seems to drain rather fast. Limited battery coupled with a rapidly dwindling air supply are what keep the narrative momentum moving forward.
Paul, a civilian contractor stationed in Iraq, is unclear about how he ended up in his current situation. He realizes he is, in fact, a hostage after a phone call from the terrorist who placed him there, an insurgent who participated in the ambush of Paul’s convoy which resulted in his unconsciousness and limited memory upon waking up in the coffin. His captor provides instructions on making the proper phone calls to provide the sum of $1,000,000 for Paul’s ransom. When Paul realizes that such a request is not in his power, he is further instructed to make a hostage video; complying with terrorist demands is, of course, against US military policy and Paul delays such an action until late in the film when the stakes have risen considerably.
What director Rodrigo Cortés and writer Chris Sparling have done here is remarkable, restricting the entire film to the confines of a coffin. Recalling a four minute sequence that Tarantino toyed with in Kill Bill Vol. 2, Buried expands this concept to feature length. There are no flashback sequences, no reaction shots of those above ground that Paul converses with and the audience is stuck with Paul
for the duration of the film. Yet this is one gimmick that works.
There are not many in Hollywood who could pull off such a feat of remaining watchable for so long. Here Reynolds’ charm and trademark smugness work to humanize a character who may not be so noble after a series of less than heartfelt conversations with supposed loved ones. The same is true of Paul’s biggest ally Dan Brenner, who despite working for Paul’s best interests, unwittingly makes a major revelation that threatens to unravel Paul late in the film. Morally, the film is awash in dull gray; both enemies and allies are revealed to have ulterior motives, adding an additional layer of tension to a high (or low depending on your view) concept film that works on nearly every level.
A note of caution however – this is not a film for the claustrophobic. In the preview screening I attended, several audience members walked out, likely unable to cope with the constant darkness and restrictive close-ups that Buried employs. I have prepared you as best I could without spoiling the film, to have done so would seriously mar the enjoyment of the film. I had the misfortune of having the ending spoiled for me beforehand, and while I knew the eventual outcome, it was still a rewarding journey. Go into this film knowing nothing else, and you will experience the pleasure of a viewing that is as relentlessly confining as it is good.
FINAL GRADE: B+