Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), truck driver and family man, wakes up buried alive in an old wooden coffin. Not knowing who might have put him there or why, his only chance to escape from this nightmare is a mysterious cell phone. Poor reception, battery and lack of oxygen are his worst enemies in a race against time: Paul has only 90 minutes to be rescued.
'Embedded in Iraq’ takes on a whole new dimension in Rodrigo Cortés Buried. His single-setting, subterranean stomach-twister, which posits a coffin-bound Ryan Reynolds deep underground and at the whim of a heartless kidnapper, captures precisely the sickening claustrophobia, white panic and sheer desperation such a dire predicament suggests. Buried is not a fun night at the movies, but it is a gripping 95 minutes of cinematic dread and peril.
Reynolds is terrific as contracted truck driver Paul Conroy, who we learn has been involved in an ambush that has left many dead and his offsider Pamela (Ivana Mino) in the clutches of insurgent kidnapper Jabir (José Luis García Pérez). Paul awakens, entombed in a wooden box somewhere in the Iraqi desert; he has a lighter, a cell phone and little else and must compose himself long enough to make contact with those in the above-ground world – potential rescuer Dan Brenner (voiced by Robert Paterson), officious corporate personnel boss Alan Davenport (Stephen Tobolowsky) or, most importantly for his emotional state-of-mind, wife Linda (Samantha Mathis).
In a role that asks of the actor a great deal more maturity than any of his stock-in-trade action pics (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2009; Blade Trinity, 2004) or smart-mouth comedies (Van Wilder: Party Liaison, 2002; The Proposal, 2009), Reynolds – the only actor onscreen for the entire film – works fearlessly to convey the torture such a confined space would have on the mind and body. Essentially breaking down his performance into the five stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief, he embarks upon a bare-bones dissection of a man under unimaginable duress with a fierce commitment. It is a standout performance that should resonate come awards season, but which will probably be bypassed for the same reasons Sam Rockwell’s turn in Moon (2009) was ignored – the film is 'high-concept genre’, not bleak social realism or sappy romanticism.
Spanish-born director Cortés also steps up, his camera whirring and spinning despite only having a keyhole-sized window into Conroy’s four-sided wooden world. Just as Alfred Hitchcock achieved suspense and drama in his own single-setting effort, the under-rated Lifeboat (1944), Cortés shows a masterful control of the most miniscule of creative elements – a cell-phone’s glare, a lighter’s flickering flame, the cold electronic twang of a caller’s voice. These components, coupled with an actor willing to go to the nth degree in his performance, is all Cortés has to work with and he makes the utmost use of them.
Metaphorically, the film rather too obviously speaks to America’s involvement in the Middle East – despite all Conroy’s screaming/pleading/threatening, Jabir is always in control, even going so far as to taunt Conroy that he’ll next kill Linda while he’s still buried in the desert. The device itself – the American working class man (it is no coincidence that Conroy is not a soldier) entombed in a far away landscape – is all the metaphor the film really needs; Cortes does the correct thing in letting the genre elements do all the work, leaving socio-political interpretations to high-minded critics and viewers.
There are some realities that are left unanswered – just how deep underground could a cell phone be and still get a signal? – and Cortés can’t resist the occasional gratuitous touch. (Did we really need the 'snake in the coffin’ scene?) But the overall impact of Buried is one of profound disturbance and deep emotion. As Hollywood continues to expand its bloated visions and forsakes the very tenets of basic storytelling, Rodrigo Cortés and Ryan Reynolds go just about as small as film can go and yet deliver a vastly entertaining cinema experience.