Sort of a Sorry, Wrong Number for the cellphone age, Buried is a gimmicky thriller whose single gimmick, if you have not been tipped off beforehand, dawns on you with a mounting sensation of hopelessness and resignation. You reach a point where you realize there would be no point to the movie were the emerging gimmick ever going to change. You are just stuck with it, might as well settle in and make the best of it. Ryan Reynolds, in a word, is to be the only human being to appear on screen for the duration.
That in itself is not as great a handicap or a hardship as it might sound, for Reynolds is not required to be a more imposing human being than he has been in such fluff as Just Friends and Definitely, Maybe and The Proposal, and he has no chance, no latitude, to be smug and smarty-pants as accustomed. He is here nothing more than an Everyman, a civilian trucker named Conroy whose convoy (infelicitous word combination, occurring often) has been attacked by unidentified forces in Iraq, and he is required only to sweat and to stew. By the time we meet him, one eye and nose first, gagged mouth second, dimly illuminated by Zippo lighter after a lengthy stretch of black screen, he is entombed underground in a low-ceilinged wooden box.
Soon a blue-glowing mobile phone vibrating down around his feet will afford him contact not just with his broken-Englished abductor (“Nine p.m., five million money”), but with anyone under the satellite. Employer, FBI, State Department, wife. So we get to hear plenty of other voices in addition to Reynolds’s, and much is made, much comic relief in particular is made, of the aggravations of answering machines and phone trees as well as blandly, maddeningly obtuse interlocutors (“I understand your frustration”), but we never get to see the faces that go with these voices: Sorry, Wrong Number pushed to an extreme of confinement and claustrophobia, not to mention extreme of powerlessness and exasperation.
The overt political overtones prove to be no more than a convenience (a facile solution to the plausibility problem of what kind of person would bury another person alive in a coffin), having nothing
really political to say beyond maybe an implicit comment on the state of an economy that would place a Conroy in a convoy in Iraq. And maybe, too, some larger, extrapolitical, existential comment on the insignificance of the individual: he can’t quite come to grips with the idea that the whole world isn’t mobilized to save him. But rather than being pulled into the reality facing the character, we’re more apt to be pulled into the reality facing the filmmaker, the Spaniard Rodrigo Cortés.
That is both the drawback of the movie and the draw. The pressing question is not so much how he, the character, is going to get out of it as how he, the filmmaker, is going to keep it going. The answer is, by hook or by crook. A maudlin conversation with the demented mother in a nursing home. A poisonous snake slithering beneath the pants leg. The phone battery running down like the sands in an hourglass. The literal desert sands pouring through the cracks as if the coffin were in fact the lower chamber of the hourglass. In honesty the moviegoer’s biggest worry, biggest fear, is that the situation will be revealed to be some type of monitored training exercise, some fiendish psychological experiment. Not to worry, never fear.
For a movie contained in a crate, the camera is strikingly mobile, the space strikingly flexible: tracking shots and panning shots by the inch or by the foot, short sharp in-and-out zooms, a 360-degree rotating camera, Expressionist expansion and distortion of the box’s dimensions. The trick of the thing, the challenge of it, is to be not so strikingly mobile and strikingly flexible as to sacrifice the sense of confinement and claustrophobia, yet not so confined and claustrophobic as to sacrifice the sense of cinema. The stunt, in a level-headed and even-handed view, is sustained very well for the full hour and a half but never developed into more than a stunt. In the last analysis the individual appears as insignificant to the filmmaker as to the impersonal Powers That Be. ■