How did anyone dare to do this? How did anyone think they would get away with it? Most audacious of all, perhaps: Did anyone have any notion that such a recklessly bold premise for a film would possibly succeed this well?
Buried opens on a black screen. There’s nothing to see — and only some thumping to hear. Soon, there’s a bit of light, from a Zippo, and we discover ourselves trapped in a rough wooden coffin with Paul Conroy. We don’t know who he is at first: all we know is that he’s bloodied, he’s gagged, his hands are bound, and he’s terrified. He can barely move. Once he manages to cut his bonds — on a nail poking out of the coffin walls — and remove his gag, then he starts to scream. And all you can think at first is: That Zippo flame is using up a lot of O2. So is the screaming…
Some movies end up painting themselves into a corner. Buried opens there. And damned if it doesn’t stay there. The entire film takes place within the tiny confines of this coffin, and Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) — suddenly deeply thrilling as an actor — as Paul is the only face on the screen. A screen that keeps you feeling as boxed-in as Paul is.
And here’s an extra bit of creepiness: See this film in a theater, and you are trapped, too, in the black box of the theater. I’m not sure if the effect will be the same later, when you’re sitting in your comfy, well-lit living room. If you want to see Buried, I cannot recommend vehemently enough that you venture out to a multiplex to do so. The size of the screen won’t matter so much as the fact that you’re confined, and cannot easily be distracted from what you may well find — as I did — to be one of the most horrific, most sickeningly claustrophobic cinematic experiences you’ve ever had.
There is no musical score. There is no CGI, no FX. There is only Paul, alone and scared. And when I say that the film has, as its premise, painted itself into a corner, I mean that only physically. Part of the marvelously nail-biting suspense here comes not merely from worrying for Paul — either he will get out of this coffin by the end of the movie, or he won’t — but in wondering just how the hell screenwriter Chris Sparling and Rodrigo Cortes can up the ante from here, as a film must do? How can things possibly get worse for Paul?
They can, and do. Soon we learn — no spoilers here — that it is October 2006, and Paul is a contractor in Iraq: not a soldier of fortune, just a truck driver. His convoy was ambushed, and he has been kidnapped by Iraqis who demand ransom for his release. This is knows because they’ve left a cell phone in the coffin for Paul — cruelly, it is at his feet, with hardly any room to move or maneuver to actually get at it, but it does provide a bit of non-oxygen-consuming light. For as long as the half-burned-through battery will last…
There’s a lot of what we’d hardly consider horrors turned into horrific moments here. Like this: Who remembers phone numbers anymore? We program them into our phones once and then forget them… until we’re using someone else’s phone. Like how we use our phones mostly for communicating about such mundane things that when a moment is urgent, we almost don’t know what to say. (I was reminded in some places here of the awful tragedy of those voicemails left by passengers on United 93 on 9/11, who knew they were going to die…) And there’s a disturbing irony in the undercurrent that suggests that the figurative little guy everywhere — be he an American truck driver or an Iraqi kidnapper — is ever the victims and pawns of the powerful, and that Paul’s situation is more a case of little guys getting set against one another, when they might be better off joining forces against their overlords.
Buried is a grueling experience — Reynolds makes Paul’s terror so palpable it becomes unbearable — and a thrilling one: We so rarely see movies this adventurous, this creative with their narratives and their plotting and their characters. I still haven’t been able to shake the unnerving itchiness it left me with.