Buried ★★★★

['The Guilty', this year's Oscar submission from Denmark, reminded me of another -- and more impressive -- one-man "stationary thriller": Rodrigo Cortés' masterful and criminally under-seen 'Buried'. I'm re-posting my review of that film, with minor edits, originally written on October 9, 2010.]

MAN IN A BOX

Now here's a wholly unexpected and welcome shock, if a grim one. Beneath the fiendishly straightforward premise of Rodrigo Cortés' 'Buried', beneath even the nasty thrill of the claustrophobic agonies inflicted on its hapless protagonist (and the audience) via its 6'x3'x2' setting, lies one of the best films yet made about the Iraq War, second only to the Armando Iannucci's black comic masterstroke, 'In the Loop'. If one expects any word to describe a 95-minute film set entirely inside a coffin and featuring a single on-screen actor, it would be "simple." However, the remarkable thing about Cortés' high-concept tale is that, although it succeeds spectacularly well strictly as a white-knuckle thriller about an unthinkable situation, it possesses a richness of subtext that permits examination from manifold angles. Turn it this way and one can see a stark allegory for America's seven-year embroilment in the Middle East. Flip it that way and one might discover a miserable, sweat-stained absurdism, one part Kafka and one part Coen brothers. However, the film never indulges in sermonizing or surreal digression, and it is Cortés' commitment to 'Buried''s elemental parameters that renders it a triumphant, merciless vice of tension.

Following a title sequence that evokes Saul Bass — and therefore Hitchcock, and not incidentally so — the film presents an opening premise that is as austere as they come. Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) awakens in pitch darkness, bound and gagged. At first the viewer can only hear his breathing and sense his dawning awareness that something is very, very wrong. By the flame from the Zippo lighter that has been placed in his hand, he quickly ascertains that he has been sealed into a coffin and buried. In addition to the lighter, he discovers on his person a half-charged cell phone that shows only Arabic characters. For the next hour and a half, Cortés' camera never leaves the coffin, and the scenes are lit only by the light to which Paul himself has access (chiefly, his guttering Zippo and that ghostly-green cellphone screen).

'Buried' contains the seeds for a slightly different film than it turns out to be. Cortes and screenwriter Chris Sparling could have chosen to emphasize the mystery aspect of Paul's horrifying predicament, placing him six feet under without any knowledge of where he is or what has happened to him. That isn't the case. As Paul relates in a panic to any person he can reach on the cell phone, he works a truck driver for a Halliburton analogue in Iraq in 2006. The last thing he recalls is his convoy being attacked by insurgents, and he fairly quickly tumbles to the fact that he is likely being held captive. This becomes crystal clear when his kidnapper calls him, whispering in a menacing croak that he has only a few hours to convince the American embassy to pay them $5 million for his life. 'Buried' is therefore primarily a thriller about a seemingly unsolvable problem — a pit sans pendulum, if you will — and is equally fascinated by the tangible details of Paul's captivity and by the psychological toll that his plight wreaks on him.

Despite his fratboy smirk and sculpted abs (or perhaps because of them), Reynolds' charisma functions best in nastier roles, whether he's in Jack Torrance mode in the underrated remake of 'The Amityville Horror' or adding repugnant staining to his too-cool-for-school swagger in 'Adventureland'. While 'Buried' is essentially a one-man show, the film would lose its potency if Paul were too replete with tics and crevasses. The story works by permitting the viewer to lie alongside Paul in the coffin and imagine how they would react to such terrifying circumstances. It's a role that requires a certain Everyman blankness, and it's absolutely not a slap to Reynolds to say that he delivers on this score. His performance is exactly what the film needs: a careful equilibrium between distinctive characterization and receptiveness to audience projection, with his emotions and actions presented as utterly believable. Paul is, in a way, the perfect protagonist for horror-cinema-as-formalist-stunt.

This not to say that what Cortés achieves with 'Buried' is a mere carnival trick, bereft of significance after the curtain falls. While Paul's dire predicament is characterized by a series of escalating physical crises — a knothole that provide access for an unwanted trespasser, sand that seeps in with maddening alacrity — the most resonant aspects of his plight are likely to be eerily familiar to any viewer. He finds himself stymied by spotty cell reception, pens that won't write, a flashlight that flickers (a horror movie tradition, that), and a succession of clueless, unsympathetic, and misleading voices on the other end of his phone. (When anyone picks up at all; this, more than anything, decisively marks 'Buried' as a creature of its time.) Paul futilely professes his insignificance and neutrality in the Iraq War to his captors ("I'm just a contractor!"), but they're the least of his problems compared to skeptical bureaucrats, shifty government agents, a peeved sister-in-law, and a human resources department that seems determined, even in his present circumstances, to screw him out of his benefits.

'Buried' therefore serves as a bald-faced but slick commentary on the never-ending neo-colonial clusterfuck in the Middle East, with Paul figuratively and literally entombed by nefarious forces — neoconservative, corporate, and jihadist — that he cannot confront. More broadly, the film rumbles with the horror-cum-hilarity of the modern American experience: the futile search for help in the digital wilderness, our dependence on our technological talismans, and the barrage of casual malice and authoritarian lies that we swallow out of desperation. (Paul might as well be jobless with an underwater mortgage and expiring unemployment benefits, thanks to the politicians who self-righteously scold him to just dig himself out of his predicament.) While such metaphorical approaches to 'Buried' are quite caustic and patently unconcealed, Cortés never elevates such political or cultural statements above the simple, masochistic joys of a brutal thriller. 'Buried' is constructed with a diligence that should come as no shock given the micro scale of its setting, and watching it unfold is like reading the best Poe stories, an exercise in swelling dread and looming finality. The unexpected thematic textures that the film offers are merely the cockroach icing on a delectably vicious cake.