When you’ve got a movie that a) looks unique and well-made, b) has a borderline A-list star, and c) is backed by a significant studio contribution; that film is going to get a wide theatrical release. Unless, of course, it’s decided that the movie will be deemed “depressing” by mainstream audiences. It happened last year with the big-budget drama The Road and star Viggo Mortensen; and it seems to have happened this year to Rodrigo Cortes’ thriller Buried. Though Lionsgate won a bidding war for the film after Festival screenings early this year – and despite the star power of future Green Lantern Ryan Reynolds – Buried has yet to make a wide impact on moviegoers in the US. The only reason it even showed up in my neck of the woods is that there was nothing else available to our second run theater, and we needed something to fill a screen alongside September hits like Easy A and The Town. It’s a shame, because this is an incredibly effective – if not overly cynical – chiller.
Buried focuses on the plight of Paul Conroy (Reynolds), and almost only Paul Conroy. Paul is an American truck driver contracted to deliver supplies around Iraq, but we only learn that after the film starts with him waking up inside a wooden coffin. As the film moves forward we learn more about Paul’s ordeal and how he came to be trapped inside the box…or at least how he thinks he came to be trapped inside the box. Armed with few supplies, including a cell phone with an ever dwindling battery, Paul has only a couple of hours to find a way out of his tomb. And it doesn’t seem like those he can contact are going to be as much help as he’d like them to be.
Indeed, Buried is as much a condemnation of what American society has become as it is a tale of woe. Paul gets batted around from one agency to the next as he tries to explain his plight to anyone he can reach, and even family and friends seem to not be receptive. One might attribute this to Paul’s seemingly standoffish nature; though he’s certainly in a life-or-death situation he doesn’t seem to have much tact when dealing with others. But there’s also something to be said for how many times his calls go unanswered, get screened, or even get put on hold as he’s screaming for help. Then there are the obvious connotations to the war effort and the perceived passing of the buck when it comes to responsibility, which play into Paul’s fate as well.
There’s not a lot going on visually in Buried, for obvious reasons. The film is confined to Paul’s box, save a few moments when the camera breaks the coffin’s fourth wall for dramatic effect. This primarily leaves us with close-ups of a sweaty, hairy Reynolds gasping for breath in the light of his Zippo lighter or the blue glow of cell phone. Sound becomes important as the film often fades to black and relies on the frantic panting and convulsing of the star, and the creaks and shouts sound very impressive throughout the proceedings.
There are some lulls in the action (we can’t really have Ryan Reynolds just scream into a cell phone for a full 90 minutes, can we?) and a silly bit with a snake (Why does it always have to be snakes?), but Buried is generally a gripping thriller that takes advantage of its minimalist premise and Reynolds’ fine performance. It’s nowhere near a perfect thriller, and the cynical turns in the final act might sour the film for some, but I had a lot of fun watching Buried unfold. The political and sociological undertones should provoke a lot of thought once the credits roll, and the whole production left me wishing we could see more films like this in multiplexes. Sadly, it doesn’t seem mainstream audiences are ready for a film like this, and I heard plenty of mutterings of disgust as we left the theater.