“Buried” takes place entirely in a coffin but shrewdly finds the space to wriggle its way from horror to melodrama and even action. Lionsgate’s claustrophobic Sundance pickup about a U.S. truck driver in Iraq kidnapped and held for ransom in a pine box opens itself up creatively via a cell phone that its only onscreen character (Ryan Reynolds) uses to reach the outside world. Produced in Spain, the English-lingo pic translates easily to any number of territories, where its wartime tale of an arguably innocent American could even spark debate.
In purely cinematic terms, “Buried,” set in late 2006, is an ingenious exercise in sustained tension that would make Alfred Hitchcock turn over in his grave. Shooting in widescreen, believe it or not, director Rodrigo Cortes starts in total darkness, using the sounds of breathing, a cough or two, some thumps and the scratching against wood to establish that his film is beginning where “The Vanishing” left off.
The flame of a Zippo eventually illuminates the sweaty face of Reynolds’s 30-year-old family man Paul Conroy, whose frantic kicks can’t compete with those of Uma Thurman’s martially artful escape artist in “Kill Bill Vol. 2.” All our hero has at the outset is that lighter, a pen, a pocket knife and, crucially, a fully charged phone.
Through Conroy’s darkly funny long-distance calls to 911 and elsewhere, we learn that the civilian driver’s convoy was ambushed by Iraqi insurgents en route to delivering kitchen supplies to a community center. Evidently unconvinced of his humanitarianism, an Iraqi man (voiced by Jose Luis Garcia-Perez) calls Conroy to demand the wire transfer of $5 million within two hours.
The suggestion that an ordinary American would have to pay for his country’s involvement in an ugly war is as brilliant (and scary) as anything in Chris Sparling’s suitably tight screenplay.
Reaching the State Dept. along with the Hostage Working Group’s Dan Brenner (voice of Robert Paterson), Conroy is told that the U.S. doesn’t negotiate with terrorists — which can’t stop him from momentarily obliging his captor by uploading a cell-shot video of his desperate plea for funds. Later, talking to a cold-hearted representative of his employer (voice of Stephen Tobolowsky), the working stiff discovers that in this economy, one doesn’t have to be above ground in order to get downsized.
Capably acting his way out of a tight situation, Reynolds channels a measure of Bruce Willis’ “Die Hard” hero John McClane, as the isolated Conroy, longing for his family and struggling to keep his cool, is forced to develop trusting relationships with those he can’t see. As if being buried alive isn’t compromising enough, the character’s vulnerability is enhanced further by the fact that, even under better circumstances, he suffers from clinical anxiety. Running dangerously low on air, Conroy is at least able to reach into his pocket and pop a few Xanax.
Employing their own limited tools effectively, the “Buried” crew, from sound designer James Munoz to d.p. Eduard Grau, adds immeasurably to the pic’s nightmarish proportions. Cortes (who also edited) manages myriad technical challenges with wit and aplomb, zooming back when necessary and even staging a close-quarters action scene that’s too much fun to give away.
Speaking of “Buried” spoilers: The biggest trick for Lionsgate will be to keep the lid on.