In Buried, a claustrophobe's worst nightmare, Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, an American civilian contractor in Iraq. Captured by insurgents after his convoy is attacked, Paul is buried alive by kidnappers hoping to extort a cool $5 million for his release. Do you like Ryan Reynolds? Would you like him in a box? Going crazy, like a fox? Would you, could you, endure 95 minutes of such a thing?
Or should you? Honestly, I'm torn. On the one hand, the movie is interestingly aggressive; from the opening scene (heavy breathing, darkness) it basically jams our fingers into our mouths and forces us to bite our nails to the quick over Paul's plight. He has a cell phone, a lighter and some water. With that and Evelyn Salt's underwear, maybe he could make a bomb to blow his way out. Director Rodrigo Cortes intends us to feel trapped, twitchy and unhappy and at the same time, wildly grateful we're not actually in the box like Paul. I could do without that kind of guilt trip from a film.
Buried, set in 2006, is filled with a sense of justifiable yet nearly unbearable outrage over the U.S. presence in Iraq. His kidnapper, Jabir (Jose Luis Garcia Perez, a stereotypical Middle Eastern villain who hisses unintelligibly), is briefly hopeful that Paul works for Blackwater, a name bound to cause a kneejerk reaction in the audience; it's become shorthand for how we've been jerked around and ripped off as a nation in this war. But Buried is almost as interested in pointing out how hard it is to make a phone call in this day and age without being put on hold, or how likely a heartless corporation is to place its interests above those of the human beings who work for it. Screenwriter Chris Sparling is mad as hell about contemporary life, and he's banking on us feeling the same way.
For all Reynolds' movie star appeal, Paul is an ordinary guy. He has $700 in his savings account. He came to Iraq because he was desperate to make some money for his wife and son back home. He's not Angelina Jolie's Salt or a super sleuth; in fact his first phone calls are achingly mundane to his own answering machine in the States, and to 911. "I'm in a coffin!" he tells the emergency operator, and is asked, with the fake patience reserved for the insane or simple-minded: "Are you in a funeral home?" As he continues to encounter doubting Thomases and hold music, he grows more shrill, more appalled at the idea of falling through the cracks. "I'm an American citizen," he says. "Just send someone to find me." The movie wants us to recognize the arrogance of this line of thinking.
On the plus side, as Buried unfolded in heavy-handed horror, it gave me every dirty little thing I asked of it. Wouldn't it be interesting, I thought, if the film never left the box, like a more extreme version of the 2003 thriller Phone Booth, in which Colin Farrell was essentially chained to pay phone by a psychopath? But what are the odds Cortes would be so bold? It's Ryan Reynolds, after all, he of Van Wilder and The Proposal. He's charming, but not exactly Das Boot material. And how exactly are we supposed to see his abs in a coffin?
When the camera pulls back a foot or two into the dirt, you're prepared to enter the real world maybe a Stateside visit with Paul's despairing wife, or a look inside the offices of the Hostage Network, where a crew is frantically trying to track Paul's cell phone signal. My anticipation was smug; we all know what those sequences in a movie look like.
But no: Cortes is a submarine driver who doesn't surface, and Buried stays buried for its entire length. There's not even a view from immediately above (a vantage point that was perhaps the most chilling aspect of the Dutch buried-alive thriller The Vanishing, from 1988). My admiration for Cortes' artistic integrity was tinged with irritation, that kind of good-for-you-but-please-stop-doing-that feeling you might get when an idealistic young relative starts lecturing you about American slaughterhouses just as you begin to carve the holiday roast.
The realization that we're stuck in the box too is supposed to give us even greater sympathy for poor Paul. But because the movie seemed so pleased with itself for remaining there, my thoughts drifted instead to pity for Reynolds, who must have had to perform horizontally for weeks on end. That's the gamble you take with a gimmick: it tempts the audience to focus on deconstructing the setup, rather than feeling the circumstance. The same goes for the film's radical climax, something my nastier impulses had half-hoped for. If the aim is to be unpredictable and to revel in cynicism, you run the risk realized here that the movie becomes more an authorial statement of purpose than a story the audience can believe in.