Buried is a great high-concept thriller, with one hell of a hook and a fascinating premise. Basically the story of kidnap victim Paul Conroy, who is kidnapped by “insurgents” (or “criminals” or “terrorists”, depending on who you ask) and buried alive in Iraq. With only a limited source of light, and even less time, the truck driver is given mere hours to come up with a ridiculously large ransom or he’ll be left in the ground to rot forever.
It sounds more like a concept for a one-man theatre show than a film, and it’s a very tricky idea to work with. Although Paul has a life-line to the outside world in a mobile telephone, the movie asks us to invest entirely in one actor and one set for the entirity of its duration. That’s a huge gambit to make. Even Phone Booth, confined to a single locale in (close enough to) real time, had a supporting cast and some background action to complement Colin Farrell’s central performance. Here, it’s just Ryan Reynolds in a box. There’s no hostage negotiation, no quick cuts around the world, no subplot following the crack team assembled to track him down.
That’s a lot of pressure. It’s almost more than the weight of the dirt pressing down against the cheap wooden coffin over Paul’s head. I like Ryan Reynolds. I have no problem with Ryan Reynolds – but I’ll concede that he is no Colin Farrell, and even Colin Farrell had more to interact with when trapped inside his own little box. It’s to Reynolds’ credit that the film is anywhere near as engaging as it might be. Reynolds has a rare charm that works well, and I think the film showcases the actor at his most dramatic. Trapped in a coffin, struggling to breath, Reynolds convinces us that Paul Conroy is a real person, even though we have no context for the character outside this tiny little box he’s been buried in. That’s a huge credit to Reynolds that he can do that.
The direction is tight and claustrophobic. There’s a genuine sense that we are trapped inside this tomb with the poor truck driver. There are some genuinely impressive production design tricks employed to make us feel almost as uncomfortable as Paul. In certain scenes, for example, the wooden panelling of the coffin seems to extend forever, an illustration of the fact that this is Paul’s entire world, at least for the duration of the film. The music is well handled, but the film’s sound mixing deserves credit. After all, every other member of the cast only really appears over the phone, and there are a few sequences where the screen is completely dark, using Reynolds’ laboured breathing to unsettle us in our seats. It seems to surround us, creating the impression that we are just as trapped as Paul Conroy.
All this said, though, I can’t help but feel a bit let down by the script. The movie focuses primarily on the red tape that arises in a situation like this, with Paul’s employers seeking to minimise the damages and losses incurred as a result of the incident – they’re more keen, for example, to ensure that he doesn’t talk to the media than to ask him any pertinent questions. I’ll admit this is a very clever, and very effective, way of looking at the situation, there are moments (especially early on) when the movie veers just a little bit too far into absurdism, feeling like a surreal Monty Python comedy. I know it’s not too far from the truth, and there are several moments that just hit the tone perfectly, but literally nobody on the face of the planetseems at all distressed by the fact that Paul is in a box waiting to die.
There are also moments that do feel just a little bit politically loaded, like a really strange conversation between Paul and the man leading the task force to rescue him, where the officer in charge of his recovery mounts something akin to a philosophical defense of the people who massacred a convoy, threw Paul in a coffin, and buried him alive. Look, I’m sure that the fact these people are providing for their families makes for an interesting academic discussion, but it feels counter-productive to tell their victim that you can see why they’d do it (and hint that you think he’d do the same in their situation) when you’re trying to calm him down. It just felt strange, like it was a moment th writer felt should have been included, but couldn’t fit it in naturally anywhere else.
It’s a shame, because there are moments of great impact to be found, that pack quite an uncomfortable punch – like the only call Paul receives from his employers, for example. Similarly, Paul’s interactions with his kidnappers are brutal and intense, and occasionally disturbing. The entire film isn’t necessarily easy to watch, and feels quite uncomfortable, but that’s really the entire point of it all.
The movie doesn’t overstay its welcome, but there are some hints of padding that allow the concept to extend to its fairly limited runtime. I’m not sure, for example, we needed the interlude between Paul and a snake, which just sorta shows up, threatens him and then goes away. I’m sure there’s something more productive that could have been done with the time spent on those scenes. Still, it’s actually a fairly tight little film, and the snake scene is the exception that really proves the rule.
I liked Buried. It did a good job with an admittedly difficult premise. Still, I can’t help but feel like the script itself could have used a few more revisions to deal with some of the more awkward moments that impede the flow of an otherwise fine and fascinating little film.