In my own personal opinion, the most terrifying feeling of all is that of helplessness. Not hopelessness, which is more conclusive, but helplessness: when you have hope, but it rests on the decisions and actions of other people that you have no tangible connection to or control over. In Buried, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up in a cheap wooden coffin buried somewhere in Iraq, and what unfolds is 90 minutes of powerful, potent helplessness. It's a challenge -- if you're looking to relax, don't expect a "fun" thriller -- but the suffocating effectiveness of the film is both powerful and haunting.
At first, the box is pitch black, but Paul manages to wrestle a Zippo from his pocket and undo his bindings. There is a cell phone in his overshirt, but the on-screen language is Arabic, and his wallet, which should contain a "safe" number for him to call in case of emergency, is empty. Paul starts calling various people and authorities in America, but the answering machines rack up, along with the number of people who sound insurmountably detached, disbelieving, or dismissive of his situation. All Paul wants to do is survive, but everyone he talks to seems to be moving in slow motion, if at all, and he's surrounded by reminders that time is running out: the oil in the lighter, the battery on the cell, the air in the coffin and the chance that his kidnappers will let him live.
Obviously, I can't reveal whether the entirety of Buried takes place within the coffin without it being a spoiler, but at least 99% of the movie does, and it's amazing how effectively director Rodrigo CortÚs keeps the film visually interesting (the elevator in Devil probably looks like a mansion in comparison). There's a brief visual metaphor and a few angles that would be impossible without one of the box's six sides removed, but despite my reservations in the first few minutes that he'd be able to sustain for an hour and a half, CortÚs turns out to have plenty of tricks up his sleeves. In addition to finding plenty of angles, Cortez also alleviates fatigue using the lighting. The cell phone screen glows blue, glow sticks glow green, the flashlight turns red, and sometimes, there's no light at all.
On the other hand, without spoiling at all, I can say that 100% of of the movie is Reynolds' show, and the scenario trumps the usual constraints of even a one-man show (like, say, Moon) by preventing the actor from moving most of the time (although Reynolds flips over, squishes and stretches, and even turns around in the coffin twice. He shows an impressive range of emotions here, cycling through each stage of grief, while still claiming a number of comedic moments that fall within his usual wheelhouse. Other key cast members (the two best being Robert Paterson as an FBI contact, and Stephen Tobolowsky as another employee at Paul's company) drop in via telephone line, over which Reynolds forms strong chemistry with them.
Those people put the film on slightly shaky ground. Everything except survival is a secondary concern to Paul, but thanks to the attitude of the people he keeps talking to, the world actually seems even farther away than it already is. Paul berates a woman on the phone: "You're sitting in an air conditioned office! What are you doing to help me right now?" Her reassurances don't help: it's clear from the beginning (and only gets clearer) that the government is more concerned about image and the bottom line than they are Paul, and when he pushes on the top of the box, you expect to see red tape pour in with miniature fountains of sand. This kind of cynicism will probably grate on some viewers' nerves, but it's just another piece of the puzzle. On the other end of Paul's phone, everyone's talking pipe dreams, and that overwhelming feeling of helplessness sets in. There are lots of places to be buried, even in a single country, but for all it matters to the people trying to "help" him, he might as well be buried in his own backyard.
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