I wish I had waited to see award-winning director Rodrigo Cortes’ latest movie, Buried, until its DVD release, because then I would have been able to watch it in the familiar space of my own home with all the lights turned on. While this might have diminished the film’s eerie realism and unique setup, it would have also minimized the frantic urge I felt in the dark theater to glance left and right, up and down, right and left, making sure that the walls weren’t caving in on me. When the buzz started growing around this strange movie with its radical premise, the prevailing question concerned whether or not people would find it interesting enough to watch a guy in a box for a solid 90 minutes. After seeing Cortes’ film, I now understand that the question should not be one of “interest” at all, but mental fortitude, endurance, and stamina.
Buried is a one-man movie in which Paul Conroy (played by Ryan Reynolds in a captivating performance), an American truck driver in Baghdad, has been kidnapped by Iraqi terrorists and is being held for ransom. Rather than holding him in some shed with a burlap bag over his head and a gun to his temple, they simply dump him in a sturdy wooden box and bury him in the desert, reasoning that ransom must arrive no later than the time they demand because they have no control over pushing back the hour of his suffocation. They provide him with a few tools—a flashlight that barely works, a small pocketknife (I won’t tell you where that one comes in), a Zippo lighter, and—most importantly—an adequately-charged mobile phone that will allow Conroy to contact any important parties (i.e. the U.S. Embassy) who might be able to either release him or get the terrorists their money. It also gives the terrorists a way to communicate with Conroy and place their demands. The interface on the phone is programmed in Arabic, so Conroy can’t navigate through its options to determine any information about the phone itself. He is left to merely make a few quick decisions about who to call and what to say—decisions that could determine whether he lives or dies in the following 90 minutes.
The viewer experiences almost every moment that Conroy does in real time (with the exception of a very brief period when he loses consciousness). What he sees, we see. There are no flashbacks. There are no scenes at the beginning to situate us within the story—we find out all about Conroy only when he explains his circumstances to others over the phone, and the movie’s opening scene greets us with a black screen and the rapidly increasing breathing of a man who is quickly figuring out that he’s been buried alive in a coffin. By structuring the plot of the movie this way, everything unfolds naturally. At no point do Conroy’s actions seem forced, contrived or insincere. If you can get past the unlikely event that terrorists would sacrifice enough control in a kidnapping to orchestrate a scenario like this, then you will have no problem suspending disbelief for the duration of the story. This strength lies in the writing, directing and acting. I can only give so much credit to Reynolds because the writing and directing do half his job for him. The movie wholly succeeds because all the factors come together to make the plot move, which somehow seems a greater accomplishment in a film that literally can’t stray from one scene for a single second.
As I indicated above, parts of Buried are extremely hard to watch, which testifies to its success in trying to mimic a horrifying experience without belonging to the horror or even action genre. Now that I think of it, I’m not entirely sure how to categorize this movie. While it physiologically affects the viewer the way that thrillers generally do, this category does not encompass everything going on in the simple, direct, but unique plot of Buried. It’s too early to call it a “cult classic,” but that’s probably what it will become.
To say that Cortes conveys the impression of trepidation in Buried is a gross understatement. You leave the theater feeling like you’ve been through an ordeal. One or two times while watching the film, I even realized I had been holding my breath. I should clarify that I am not a person who is remarkably susceptible to feelings of claustrophobia—I’ve been stuck between floors in crowded elevators more than once and experienced only annoyance. Regardless, this is a movie that will stick with me. Reynolds’ performance, too, has forever changed my opinion of him. He manages to remain fresh and vibrant even though he’s the only face you see, and his contagious emotions vary between the extremes of sheer panic and teeth-grinding rationality—the result of a forced willpower we all hope we could access and maintain if we were ever unlucky enough to face similar circumstances. He brings everything he’s got to Conroy’s character, and doesn’t appear to be “acting” even once. His performance contributes to the entire mirage that the film creates. Buried does what good storytelling is supposed to do—puts the viewer in the place of the protagonist, making his predicament our predicament, ensuring that there is no escape for either party.
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