Buried opens with fifteen seconds of pitch black silence. Then, out of the dark, come the sounds of muffled groans and fidgeting movement. Wherever we are, we're not alone. A Zippo lighter flips open and the grating of steel on flint produces a flame, illuminating a panicked face -- covered in dirt, sweat, and blood -- in an amber half light. Whoever this guy is, he lies gagged and bound, and as he surveys his new scene the nightmarish truth begins to dawn: he has been stuffed in a wooden coffin and buried. From the look on his face alone, we can tell we're in trouble. This guy's boxed up and going nowhere.
Our prisoner's name is Paul Conroy and he's played with real sand by Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds is that Canadian fella best known for playing douche bags (Waiting...) and romcom leading men (The Proposal). He goes for terrified and vulnerable in Buried, and nails it with verisimilitude and conviction. Of course Buried is for all intents and purposes 90 minutes in a coffin with Ryan Reynolds. So, before you pay your hard earned dough to see this one-man-coffin-show you should consider your tolerance levels for both, and decide accordingly.
This critic finds Reynolds a charmer, and as far as coffins go, well, I'm open to the possibility that an entire film shot inside one could be more than just an ambitious and painstaking creative exercise. Buried's director, spaniard Rodrigo Cortes, finds his groove as a certified nerve-jangler echoing the old masters, Alfred Hitchcock and Henry Georges Clouzot. (Something tells me the guys who made Rope and Wages of Fear would find this task a giddy pleasure.) Cortes shows that he has done his homework by crafting an excellent Hitchcockian thriller out this high-concept experiment in inhibition.
It's true the stale and dusty air filling this coffin reverberates with lessons from the Hitchcock handbook. Conroy discovers a working BlackBerry (not there by accident) and while frantically making calls for help reveals his role as a contract truck driver in Iraq -- he was attacked and taken hostage. So is Conroy a political prisoner? All of a sudden, Buried becomes the first political-thriller from inside a box. (Even Hitch would be impressed.) And Cortes never misses an opportunity to up the ante with big-time claustrophobia and cold-sweat inducing predicaments. (Uh, snake plus coffin equals change-o-underwear.) All the while Conroy's air is running short with every panicked breath and the battery-life on his phone-a-friend is depleting with every call. This flick had me on pins and needles.
Cortes must be credited with the film's overwhelming chill. He never lets us breathe -- employing a toolbox worth of aesthetic techniques. The lighting design is impeccable, developing unease from a protean display of sources: from the amber glowing flame to the cool neon blue of the cell phone's main menu. Cinematographer Eduard Grau explores every inch of space in that tight container -- the nooks and the crannies -- imparting intense atmospherics.
Buried is a nail-biter that preys on our most primal fears: the fear of being trapped, the fear death, and the fear of complete and utter helplessness. But the exhilaration comes from the synergy of director Cortes tightening the noose and star Reynolds reacting with painful and altruistic vigor. (Some actors know how to suffer for their art.) It's not until the final minutes that Buried overplays its hand, adding insult to injury with superfluous political and corporate callousness. (Really?!) If only the screenwriters knew they had our full attention at "buried alive." Never-the-less, everyone involved deserves all the credit in the world for making the minimalism of a box seem creatively limitless.