Primal Fear time!
One actor, one location, one goal: get me the hell outa here! An ingenious piece of filmmaking! Taken as a thought experiment, as a Hitchcockian mystery, as a suspense thriller, as an intense gutshock drama, BURIED – to borrow from a breezy Clint movie – will turn you Every Which Way But Loose.
Ryan Reynolds is Paul Conroy, who wakes up in a coffin with a cigarette lighter, a cell phone and a pen-knife. Uh-oh…
That’s it! That’s all there is to this movie You’re thinking I must be exaggerating; there must be flashbacks or cutaways or some kind of prelude scenes to show us how Conroy ended up in the coffin. Nope. We are as discombobulated as he is, and only learn snippets of information as they come to him – via cell phone dialogue with outside parties.
With such limited space, movement and action, it seems unbelievable that this movie has so much space, movement and action. Written like a knife edge, directed like a freight train, edited like a cobra strike, the film has nowhere to run, no one to turn to and nothing to support it, except itself. And we are held as captive as Conroy by its throat-gripping execution.
BURIED is all Ryan Reynolds. Every frame is his – even the pitch dark ones. For anyone who may have doubted his worth as a dramatic actor, let alone a leading man capable of doing more than just showing off his biceps and abs, this is the commanding role that all actors salivate over, and the magnetic performance that they wish they could pull off.
Written by Chris Sparling, directed and edited by Rodrigo Cortes, the last thing we expect from this single-themed movie is an indictment against bureaucratic incompetence, corporate stonewalling and political cowardice – yet as Conroy tries to phone people who may be able to help him (government, military, friends), those are the aspects that stultify his chances of escape; like every worm-tongued government venture, instead of taking steps to progress a resolution, no one wants responsibility for his situation and liability is out of the question.
We discover Conroy is a nondescript contractor in the Middle East and was kidnapped and buried for a ransom, his kidnappers contacting him on the phone and demanding 5 million from the U.S. Embassy “by 9 pm tonight,” an hour away. (Oh no! Don’t tell me I have to deal with a government department! Just kill me now.) Also in an hour, the oxygen runs out. And the movie is playing out in real time. Claustrophobia, desperation, and not a single opportunity to flex those abs.
BURIED shows us how far we’ve come with our methods of communication – that is, not one step forward since the invention of the telephone! Though everyone carries a PMD (personal media device), we still can’t get in touch with anyone when we need to. Everyone has voicemail, yet no messages get through. Though their intent was to bring people closer, PMDs isolate us more than ever. (At one point, Conroy gets through to one of those fakeout answering machines: “Hello… How’s it going?…. fooled you!…” Do you people know how that makes us want to nail your hands to your heads? It’s run its course! When answering machines were new, maybe… but now? Stop doing that! Just stop! Or there is another option: if you still find them amusing, throw yourself off a building.)
But this is the least of Conroy’s problems. The contractor bureaucracy where Conroy is a tiny cog is a part of the military industrial complex that has become so vast and dystopian that one small cog that slips out of sync cannot be retrieved. His contractor agency actually calls Conroy (the oily voice of Stephen Tobolowsky) as if they are ready to execute a rescue, but we discover in rage and frustration as volcanic as Conroy’s that the company terminated him that morning so that they could wash their hands of the situation. Then Tobolowsky plays Conroy a recording of the terms of the contract! If ever anyone needed the Stallone “I’m coming for you” treatment…
We feel Conroy’s heart fall and fall further as each phone call plunges him deeper into despair and feral terror. Even the ransom being paid is no guarantee of survival, because there is nothing in it for the kidnappers to release him after they receive the money. Clawing your fingernails on the sealed lid is all the tangible hope you can muster, as irrational as it is…
A British voice recurs in Conroy’s calls (Erik Palladino), who seems authoritative enough to launch a rescue. But even his oily voice has an edge of corporatism and callousness, as he calmly explains to Conroy why the media should not be alerted to avoid an international incident.
The movie is screenplay gold; for a screenwriter tutor wishing to convey how to tell a story with words alone, BURIED is truly the high water mark. And none of it seems like exposition. From dire conversations alone, we get the whole picture; no need for any of those other filmic devices (narration, flashbacks, cutaways) which even the best directors have been known to abuse (cough-Ron Howard!).
Not for people who get nauseous at the thought of enclosed spaces. Or Ryan Reynolds.