“Or else he’ll take me to SeaWorld”
Oh, what lies we are willing to tell in order to selfishly make ourselves feel safe and guiltless while those we fool have their lives destroyed or to guard them from the stark realities of truth for a short time more. Thinking he’s about to die, what does a husband say to his wife when she asks him to promise he’ll come home safe? If he’s being held hostage and asks the man tasked with finding him how many saves he’s made, does the voice on the phone say every single one or only the few, if any, that occurred? Knowing the media has gotten hold of a tragedy that will inflict pain on the employer of the victim, how far is the law team and money men willing to go in order to save their bottom-line both financially and in the news? These are the questions screenwriter Chris Sparling and director Rodrigo Cortés pose in the claustrophobic suspense thriller Buried where a truck driver awakens to the darkness of a wooden coffin with a Zippo and a cell phone as his only tools for survival. He isn’t a soldier, he has no value to his country besides the love shared with a wife and son, so how far are the voices on the phone he contacts ready to go in order to save him?
A compressed hour and a half of Paul Conroy’s (Ryan Reynolds) captivity underground, Buried showcases an actor more known for his sarcastic wit and infinite charm than the talent necessary to carry an entire film on his chest, literally unable to move as the camera stays focused on his face the entire time. Ambushed in Iraq on a convoy run delivering kitchen supplies to a town in need, Conroy remembers only the gunfire and thrown rocks, the coworkers being killed for doing nothing but trying their best to help, before opening his eyes to the darkness of his cage—the same black void we as an audience are introduced to at the start, hearing heavy breathing and the scraping of a man searching for a light source. The quick flickers of illumination as his tied hands attempt to work the flint show a scared eye in close-up, the fear ravaged and blood streaked face of a man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time without the means to contact anyone who would feasibly be able to come up with the five million dollar ransom demanded. Trapped in the coffin with him, we feel the tantrum-induced pounding on the walls, we hear the hoarse screams for help, and we see the tears of helplessness as air and time depletes.
Reminiscent of another one-man show this year—Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours—this one decides to stick to the rules of isolation, giving us but one instance of fantasy rescue and never showing another person’s face besides the seconds-long footage of another hostage viewed from his cell phone screen. Instead, we are given a close to real time experience of Reynolds and his search for the right phone numbers and/or people to find him. He goes far enough to make a ransom request video for his captors, knowing the media blitz it would cause, an action that could either condemn him or bring salvation. We see news channels everyday latching onto stories of tragedy for high ratings, we hear of the unwavering stance never bending to the demands of terrorists, and we watch anchors talk of sensitive videos they can’t show themselves, but are more than willing to mention so our curious minds scour the internet for a glimpse. Everyone Conroy calls feeds him lines like ‘we’re doing all we can’ or ‘the situation is of utmost importance’ or ‘don’t do anything to compromise what we are doing’. Refusing to treat his pleas for help as anything other than one instance on a long list of kidnapped Americans, his isolation isn’t only due to the prison surrounding him—everyone on the outside has decided it’s more pertinent to keep a lid on the story than to save his life.
The camerawork is astounding as it switches from profile views of the coffin shrouded in darkness, overhead vantages of Reynolds on his back, or, my personal favorite, the horizontally and vertically revolving lens showing us exactly how closed off the ‘stage’ is. The shoot must have been pretty harrowing as, by all appearances, this thing was shot from within a six-sided box with nowhere to go. At first I didn’t think anything of it as I was in a giant theatre watching from a safe distance, but as the staggered sequences of the camera spinning to show every wall and Reynolds’s painful job of flipping directions by squeezing his body around the smallest width of the coffin showed the tight quarters being utilized, the feeling of intense isolation and suspense consistently building. I could have done without a fifteen minutes or so exchange with a visiting predatory creature that adds little to nothing to the plot, but, otherwise, Cortés shows some talent in pacing everything perfectly while showing so much detail in an environment you’d think would be pretty sparse. But with every pan of the camera you see the names and numbers written on the wooden slabs around Reynolds, constantly reminding us of the situation while things escalate.
It’s a performance that I don’t think many thought Reynolds could give and a carefully crafted story uncovering just the information critical to feel his frustration and panic leading towards a brilliant finale that could have come a bit earlier without problem. Buried never shows footage of how Conroy arrives in the tomb, nor of the people scrambling to find him. As a result, we are privy to the same questions and trust issues as the character on his quest for survival. The consequences of his actions begin to handcuff some of those on the outside, cornering them to make objective decisions without regard for the living soul about to perish, just as they also invigorate the few still retaining compassion and humanity to fight until the end for an innocent stranger merely trying to support his family. The kidnappers aren’t terrorists per se; they are merely men doing what they can to watch out for their own wives and children. A question is asked about whether Conroy would be able to take the life of a man if it meant saving his own flesh and blood. Quick to reply no, the truth of never really knowing what we are capable of until reaching our breaking point is hard to ignore.
We all have motivating factors such as love, money, vanity, or power and each person spoken to during the course of the film, whether CRT Personnel Director Davenport (Stephen Tobolowsky), hostage retriever Dan Brenner (Robert Paterson), or even Conroy’s wife Linda (Samantha Mathis), have the luxury to think on them before acting for an unseen person in peril. They can choose to ignore the situation, or worse, capitalize on it to create stories to sever all ties to their responsibility. We unfortunately live in a world where the life of one man no longer holds as much value as we’d like to hope.
Buried 8/10 | ★ ★ ★
[1-3] Ryan Reynolds stars as ‘Paul Conroy’ in BURIED. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate