First frame: Nothing on the screen but darkness, pitch black, then the raspy sound of heavy breathing punctuated by a scream for help. Another sound, the click of a Zippo lighter opened and sparked, eroding the darkness just enough to illuminate the premise: A man is buried alive in a coffin, interred deep in the good earth and awaiting death's premature appointment. Fears don't get any more primal than this.
That's the stark opening of Buried and the imminent fate of its protagonist. Apparently, mere hours ago, Paul Conroy was an American civilian working as a truck driver in Iraq, employed by an American company contracted to rebuild what the U.S. Army had destroyed.
That was then. Now, he's a panicked guy trapped underground in a sealed wooden box, with only two lifelines at his disposal - that lighter and a cellphone.
No doubt, director Rodrigo Cortes and his lone performer, Ryan Reynolds, have set themselves quite the Hitchcockian challenge here. Shooting and acting exclusively in this confined space, they must unravel a plot that unfolds in real time, 94 ever-dwindling minutes to find a way out. Well, consider the challenge met: The suspense is gripping, even when the substance isn't.
Certainly, the early scenes have us immediately at their mercy, as Paul dials the cell with frantic fingers, desperate to get a States-side connection, and receives the inevitable: voice-mail recordings, elevator music and a 911 operator who puts him on hold. Yes, the bleak predicament is flecked with black humour. Also, beyond the fact that his truck crashed, Paul knows little more than we do about how he got there and why. So, for both the victim and us, the exposition is neatly embedded in his many phone conversations, most dramatically the one with the surly voice speaking in an Iraqi accent. It belongs to his kidnapper, and the ransom is set at $5-million.
Not all the news is dire. Kidnapping is a business in these parts, big enough that the Brits have set up a "Hostage Working Unit." Paul reaches its head man, a professionally calm fellow who assures him that they're making quick strides to locate him. He's told, "We're doing everything we can." What he's not told, what remains unspoken, is the caveat: "Everything except pay the ransom."
Throughout these exchanges, Cortes works visual wonders inside the box, magnifying the sense of claustrophobic peril but still moving his camera fluidly, closing in on Paul's antic face or around his prostrate frame. And with that face as his only acting tool, Reynolds surprises us with his emotional range, credibly flashing through the serial phases of that approaching date with the reaper - fear, anger, denial, hope, remorse, resignation.
Unfortunately, as the phone battery wears down, the plot's theatrics heat up to pot-boiling degrees of incredulity - a senile mother, a vicious personnel director, even a coiled serpent, all vie to raise the ante. Talk about your bad day. Similarly, the politicking, both corporate and military, feels strained, too flagrantly cruel. But the suspense cuts through any narrative sludge and never falters right to the surprising final frame which, like the first, catches us completely off our guard. Speaking of which, best to see this film in a theatre, where the coffined conceit speaks creepy volumes to a cinematic audience - blanketed in darkness with no exit strategy.
- Directed by Rodrigo Cortes
- Written by Chris Sparling
- Starring Ryan Reynolds
- Classification: 14A