Film Review: Buried

Claustrophobes and asthmatics be warned: 'Buried' unfolds entirely within the confines of a coffin, where an increasingly desperate man faces certain death by suffocation unless he can escape.

Buried is a stellar addition to a small but intense roster of movies that includes The Candy Snatchers, Oxygen and TV’s The Longest Night and 83 Hours ’Til Dawn (both based on the ’60s kidnapping of heiress Barbara Mackle), with honorable mentions to The Vanishing and Kill Bill.

October 23, 2006: A stygian blackness is alive with the sounds of ragged breathing, muffled thumps and fingernails scrabbling against wood until the flickering flame of a cigarette lighter reveals the sweaty, dirt-streaked face of truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds). He has just awakened to the nightmarish realization that he’s in a coffin, buried somewhere beneath the vast Iraqi desert.

Beating back panic with every breath, Conroy takes stock: In addition to the lighter, he has a pencil, a pocket knife, a flask, a small bottle of anti-anxiety pills…and a rogue cell-phone that announces itself by buzzing in the gloom near his feet. The caller, Jamir (prolific Spanish actor Jose Luis Garcia-Perez), tells Conroy he’s being held for ransom: If someone—Jamir really doesn’t care who—coughs up $5 million within the next two hours, Conroy will live. If not, he’ll suffocate in the dark. Call over.

Conroy’s employer, multinational civilian contractor Creston, Roland and Thomas, maintains an emergency line for employees working in danger zones, but the number is gone from Conroy’s wallet. So he improvises, dialing friends, family and acquaintances (none of whom pick up), 911, directory assistance, CRT corporate headquarters, the FBI and the State Department—that lowly pencil becomes more valuable by the minute. Desperation turns the banal frustration of navigating automated calling systems, oddly robotic live operators and the dreaded dead end of voicemail into an epic ordeal. It eventually yields a slender ray of hope in the form of a callback from Dan Brenner (Robert Paterson) of the State Department’s Hostage Working Group. Brenner’s clipped British diction radiates competence, but lacks a certain reassuring warmth. Is Brenner really coordinating an all-out, cross-agency rescue effort, or just managing Conroy until the potentially awkward situation resolves itself?

Directed by fledgling Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes and written by Chris Sparling, whose previous feature-film resume consists wholly of the self-produced and distributed comedy An Uzi at the Alamo (2005), Buried is a claustrophobe’s nightmare and an actor’s dream. How surprised you are that Reynolds is more than up to the challenge of a one-man show that spotlights big emotions—from fear and fury to tenderness and vulnerability—and tiny gestures probably depends on whether you know him as the amiable star of dumb comedies like Van Wilder, TV’s “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” and The Proposal; the living action-figure of Blade: Trinity and Wolverine; or the underappreciated actor who aced three completely different roles in The Nines, a tricky, “Twilight Zone”-ish riff on fate, free will, and the price of being too clever by half.

Buried isn’t fun, but it consistently nails the mundane desperation beneath the extreme situation, from the worst-possible-case scenario message Conroy leaves for his wife (Samantha Mathis) and son, to his Kafkaesque exchange with CRT human-resources drone Alan Davenport (Stephen Tobolowsky). You don’t have to have been interred alive to feel the sting of corporate America’s utter indifference to the human cogs that keep its machinery working.