Throughout most of film history, it would have been inconceivable to mount a 95-minute mainstream film that took place entirely within the confines of a wooden coffin buried several feet underground. All hail the cell phone – with one of those gadgets helpfully stashed near his person, Ryan Reynolds is a one-man suspense movie. In Buried, an English-language film from Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes and writer Chris Sparling, he plays Paul Conroy, an American contractor who drove supply trucks across the Iraq desert until his convoy was ambushed by insurgents. He wakes up in a pine box – a fairly roomy one, actually – equipped with said phone and a few temperamental sources of light.
Call it … Iraqsploitation? The Middle Eastern angle is a brilliant hook for a story that would surely have seemed more forgettable if it took place in, say, the Arizona desert instead of a war zone. Sparling doesn’t shy away from downbeat political commentary, putting Conroy on the phone with a variety of unseen supporting players — the captor demanding a king’s ransom for his safe release, the wife he left back home, the British hostage specialist tasked with negotiating his freedom, and, perhaps most sinister of all, his employer’s HR department — who comment in various ways on the intractability of U.S. interventionism. Maybe you’d better call it No End in Sight: Grindhouse Edition, featuring a sad-sack American protagonist who’s in danger of literally choking to death on sand if he doesn’t run out of oxygen first.
Reynolds handles the role with everyman aplomb, although there are moments when his dialogue and delivery feel just a little too peppy, given the gravity of the situation. It’s not worth quibbling, though, when those are the same moments that lend his character a necessary humanity. Buried wouldn’t work at all if there were no sense of a real person in jeopardy up there on screen — no beats of humor, and poignancy — and when the screws really do start turning, Reynolds makes Paul’s increasingly frantic phone calls heartbreaking.
Cortes stages the action in a space that seems a little bit big for a coffin, but he makes the most of the closed-in setting, with showy trick shots like a slow 180-degree pan from head to toe and odd angles on the action that emphasize the painful contortions Paul goes through to position himself for various tasks, or to dispatch the unexpected intruder he faces around the film’s midpoint. (It’s all shot, natch, in 2.35:1, for maximum coffin-shaped screen action.) Amazingly, it almost never feels forced. Buried is inarguably a gimmick movie, but gimmicks work when they drive the drama. This one generates ample tension in a milieu that’s actually refreshing for the unrelenting tightness of its screen geography. Cleverly written and staged with plenty of wound-up energy, plus a climax that sucks the air out of the theater, Buried is a mean, stripped-down marvel.