Screen Rant's Ben Kendrick reviews Buried
Buried isn’t a big-budget comic book film or a 3D CGI extravaganza, but it’s still one of the most thrilling films of the year. Don’t let the simple "man in a box" concept fool you - director Rodrigo Cortés (The Contestant) utilizes a number of slick storytelling devices to portray a claustrophobic - and ultimately enjoyable - experience on film.
Despite Buried's upcoming wide release (on October 8th), and high-profile star (Ryan Reynolds), the movie is more indie-film than suspense thriller. The scope is extremely limited, with numerous close-ups on Reynolds’ blood-spattered face or awkward, angled shots focused on a dark corner of the pine box.
Reynolds gives a memorable performance as Paul Conroy, a U.S. Contractor working in Iraq who is kidnapped and buried alive inside a coffin as a form of ransom. Reynolds manages to set aside his normal quip and charm to give a more frantic and emotional performance. It’s certainly interesting to see the actor's typically-energetic and charming personality reduced to laying in a pine box and being forced to convey 90 minutes worth of intense storytelling through mostly facial expressions in low-light.
The storyline is paced by a partially-charged cell phone Paul discovers buried alongside him. The cell phone’s low signal and limited battery ratchet up the tension, keeping Paul grounded in the confines of the box while still working to move the plot forward. Paul reaches out to various people for help: everyone from his wife, his employers, the FBI, as well as his kidnappers.
The kidnappers call often, each time bullying Paul with a variety of threats - coercing him to follow their instructions. Paul ultimately connects with Dan Brenner (Robert Paterson), a Special Forces agent tasked with finding kidnapped Americans in Iraq. Brenner’s primary piece of advice is to not give-in to the kidnapper’s threats – resulting in a number of tense moments where Paul is forced to balance his desperation to survive with his trust in Brenner (who is, after all, nothing more than a disembodied voice to Paul).
In general, a well-struck balance succeeds in keeping things moving - in spite of Paul’s inability to go anywhere. Cortés has done a masterful job, making all of the phone interactions authentic – as if there are real people on the other end of line, as Paul himself at one point notes, “Sitting in an air-conditioned cubicle.” The voice acting is organic - the disembodied voices react naturally to Paul’s situation, even if the reaction itself is frustrating to Paul (and highlights some people’s lack of sensibility).
There’s also a good mix of personalities on the other side of the conversations, offering a fresh set of interactions that never get stale. The juxtaposition of Paul’s life-and-death plight against the various “jobs” and responsibilities of the people on the other end of the line serve as one of the film’s greatest strengths, offering an immensely frustrating but authentic, and entertaining, experience. An interaction between Paul and a family friend, who reprimands Paul for his tone, is especially cathartic – proving that Cortés even managed to add a few glints of humor into a film fueled by the ever-present dwindling of battery power, oxygen, and Paul’s chances at escape.
The circumstances surrounding Paul’s abduction as well as the somewhat on-the-nose political discussions regarding Iraqi terrorism, American contractors, and the pitfalls of establishing democracy didn’t take too much of the spotlight away from the in-the-box-action and emotion. While it was important to touch on the context, at times it was hard to ponder the larger moral implications of the Iraq war while confined to such an intimate and intense personal struggle. By the time the credits roll, it’s clear these worldly events are the primary backdrop for Paul’s dilemma – and the carefully manufactured claustrophobia Cortés is attempting to impose on the audience.
Like any worthwhile high-concept film, Buried does a solid job of setting up the “rules” of the film. Paul is buried only a few feet below the ground, which means he gets decent, though spotty, cell-phone reception but cannot force his way out of the box. To keep the story grounded in the frantic search occurring outside of the box, the cell phone has been cloned (meaning it can’t be tracked by GPS alone), and the kidnapper’s motivation is kept simple - they want ransom money (of course, the U.S. has a policy against paying ransom for hostages). As a result, Paul’s only chance at survival rests in Brenner finding the kidnappers alive, so they can reveal Paul’s location.