What if there was a bomb that would explode a bus if it slowed down? What if a kid could see ghosts walking around him? What if an undercover cop infiltrated the Mafia while a gangster infiltrated the police force? It’s really easy to identify exactly what movies I was just describing and it only took one sentence in order to do it. In case you don’t already know, these are descriptions of what are called “high concept” projects, films that can be pitched with a pithy little description. This isn’t to say that these are simplistic films; it’s just that the basic plot skeleton that they rest upon is simple and catchy in and of themselves. The new film Buried is very much in this tradition; it’s a movie that asks “what if a man was buried alive with a cell phone?” But the question, as always, isn’t what the concept is but what the filmmakers are able to do with it.
The only onscreen character in the film is Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), who wakes up at the beginning to the movie to find himself locked and buried in a coffin. It’s clear that this is no accident: he’s been given a select set of supplies like a lighter, a flashlight, a couple of glow sticks, and most importantly a cell phone. Conroy uses this phone in order to desperately call his friends and family, but soon he’s called by none other than his captor. This is when we learn that Conroy has been a truck driver working for a private contractor in Iraq for the last year and that the people who’ve buried him are Iraqi insurgents looking for ransom money. Conroy calls up the state department, but finds himself increasingly frustrated as he’s put on hold, directed toward numbers of people who aren’t home, and other who generally are more interested in their own agenda than in his safety.
In addition to being a high concept piece, the film also fits within the tradition of “one location” films. The entire movie is set inside of this coffin; there are no flashbacks away from the coffin, we never cut to the rescue workers looking for Conway, and no before or after material. This is something that really hasn’t been done all that often, especially not with thrillers. I suppose the closest analogue would be Hitchcock’s Lifeboat or perhaps more recently the movie Phone Booth. But as similarly claustrophobic as these movies are, this movie’s single location is even smaller and it also has the challenge of being a one man show outside of the voices on the other end of the phone. Director Rodrigo Cortés does everything he can to make this single set come alive, you’ll see Conway from every conceivable angle in this thing and they also change up light sources frequently. The movie is certainly claustrophobic, it’s supposed to be, but the set never gets boring.
The movie has no love for the people who put Clayton in his hole, but the real villain of the movie seems to be the people on the other end of the line, who seem less than dedicated to saving him; at least that’s how it seems to the character. This is actually a pretty interesting way of tackling the Iraq War, not only must Conway deal with vicious terrorists but he also has to deal with a mismanaged bureaucracy that is more concerned with their propaganda than with the people on (or in this case under) the ground. This comes to a head late in the film, where the audience is witness to one of the most (deliberately) infuriating conversations you’re likely to see this year. Of course the blame for this isn’t completely removed from Conway himself, who comes to admit that it was a mistake to come to Iraq in the first place and just wishes to come home. In part this is an allegory for the war as a whole, but not in a way that’s really preachy or anything, the film is a thriller and this sense of abandonment is primarily done in order to build tension. The audience grows frustrated along with Conway and the building desperation really does give the movie this sort of frantic pace.
This is, of course, a movie about a man locked into a coffin and that’s not a concept that’s going to be for everyone. If you are prone to claustrophobia this obviously isn’t the movie for you. I also wouldn’t necessarily call it great drama either, the central character isn’t really all that interesting beyond his predicament and I wasn’t a huge fan of some of the one-liners he was given here and there either. Ryan Reynolds is great at selling the movie’s central desperation, but I did see some of his more annoying tendencies as an actor show up at times. Overall, this is kind of the movie you think it is, a sort of audacious exercise played out for everything its worth. It’s not going to change the world but it’s a good and unique watch that I expect will develop a decent following through word of mouth, possibly after it comes out on DVD.
***1/2 out of Four