High-concept at a low budget, Buried promises to be the most claustrophobic mainstream movie in history. It’s hero, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), is an American truck driver working in Iraq who’s been kidnapped, sealed in a pine box, and buried alive. His captors have left him with just enough devices to forestall complete resignation to slow death by asphyxiation: a mobile phone, a flashlight, a canteen, a lighter. But batteries die, gas burns up, and reception’s not so good underground, particularly when all your calls are to the other side of the planet. Paul needs to get help, but even if he can speak to an actual human instead of an inane voicemail service, his chances of being rescued are still despairingly slim since he doesn’t know where he is. He flips out more than once, but flipping out uses up an awful lot of air.
One actor, one very cramped location, limited light sources. (It's like Phone Booth, except you don't have to close down a New York City street! Or even a phone booth!) It’s a challenge—or, if you prefer, a gimmick—that might have appealed to the gambler—or, if you prefer, show-off—in Alfred Hitchcock—Rope squeezed into a casket, but with plenty of opportunities to cut—and the master of suspense is even given a subtle nod in the film’s opening credit sequence, which distinctly recalls the work of Hitchcock collaborator Saul Bass. Director Rodrigo Cortés and his cinematographer Eduard Grau, who’s recent work includes A Single Man, do an admirable job of finding an engaging variety of angles to hold our attention and continually reinforce the unnerving immediacy of Paul’s confines.
But Buried is a fundamentally dialogue-based story, so it’s up to screenwriter Chris Sparling to provide dynamics and stave off audience numbness through unrelenting hopelessness and terror. Reynolds isn’t an especially interesting actor to watch go through this twisty nightmare, and there’s not a lot of room for mystery or subtlety in any case, but he’s clearly committed. Black comedy and political commentary are ultimately the film’s most reliable tools, with Paul having to endure conversations with heartless employers and absurd bureaucratic hand-offs every time he tries to contact authorities. He gradually realizes that his is not the first such situation that American diplomats have had to deal with, which may or may not be a source of comfort.
Aside from its central metaphor—a means of imparting just how deeply embedded we are in Iraq—I’m not sure that anything in Buried will deepen our understanding of US misadventures abroad, but I don’t know that this was ever a real priority. The effect being sought here seems to be a delicate balance nearly unbearable discomfort and blood-curdling entertainment, and for whatever that’s worth to you, I’d argue that Buried delivers it in spades.