Saturday, October 30, 2010
Phone Call Hell - Buried
Buried starts out in darkness. We never see the ambush by Iraqi insurgents of the convoy that lands U.S. contractor/truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) in a box buried under the sand, held for ransom and coerced to make a damaging confessional video to be placed on YouTube. Paul wakes up in darkness, comes to a realization of his predicament by feeling the wooden walls around him, struggles in terror, and then lights a cigarette lighter to confirm the horror. Buried alive! Right there the film plays on anybody’s fear, and it’s hard not to be engaged.
The artful camerawork does more in this single setting than you’d think possible. The inevitable extreme close-ups capture Paul’s anguish and frenzy as the camera looks over his forehead, angles across his cheek, or frames his full face, grimy and bloody, from above. In addition, the camera follows Paul’s point of view, down the length of his body to the foot of his confines, and along the wooden surfaces as he looks for… what? In a wooden crate, what could you possibly look for that might help you escape? Yet, we would all look. Amazingly, the film also employs extreme long shots, pulling back to show Paul enclosed in an underground rectangle of blackness, or following the walls as they extend metaphorically into a deep mine shaft that traps him below.
I’m not a big fan of Ryan Reynolds, and I never thought of him as playing a rugged, desperate character, but here he does a passionate job, using a cell phone left by the insurgents to listen to their demands, but also to connect with anyone who might help him. For anyone who hates making phone calls – and that’s me – it’s a case of phone call hell. Think of the frustration we feel when put on hold to the accompaniment of mind-sapping background music or when we have to deal with a bureaucrat speaking with a tone of official insolence that holds not the slightest speck of sympathy. Now imagine calls like that when you’re buried in a box and running out of air, and you get a good idea of how the film builds tension with dark humor and situations we understand.
For a one-man, single-setting show starring Reynolds, supported by voices ranging from the son-of-a-bitch robotic monotone of his employer from the contracting company (Stephen Tobolowsky) and the British-accented compassion of the agent (Robert Paterson) in Iraq trying to find him, the story is gripping and Reynolds keeps things moving as much as he can within his box while the off-screen voices suggest offices in D.C. or a field agent pursuing leads in Iraq in a beat-up Land Rover.
Though Paul’s world is a claustrophobe’s nightmare, Paul still has room enough to twist around (for the pacing of the film, this takes much too long) and lie in the opposite direction as he explores the confines of his box and collects quite a few possessions: his lighter, a flask of liquor, the cell phone, a pencil, a confessional script on a piece of paper, a clasp knife, the rags that gagged his mouth and bound his wrists, as well as two glow sticks and a clunky flashlight left so that he can light up the video in which he must state that he has been a naughty, decadent Western infidel, or something to that effect. Can he use these things to save himself? The possibilities keep you thinking along with Paul.
Despite its setting in Iraq and a negative portrayal of the contracting company bastard, the movie doesn’t seem to carry a message. From the opening credits that include animated lines turning sharp corners as they delineate a path to a nether region, and a musical score that is reminiscent of Inception and would suit any action-thriller, it seems clear all along that Buried is nothing more than a thriller – even an adventure.
IMPLIED BUT AMBIGUOUS SPOILERS AHEAD -
That’s okay by me. As an adventure, complete with intruding creature, the film is engaging. The viewer inevitably occupies his mind with, “What would I do in this situation?” That Paul doesn’t do what I would do (he’s buried shallow so that he can receive a cell signal) – or something else just as ingenious – falls short of how most adventures work, but this serves to increase Paul’s desperation and the tension we feel.
Ultimately, however, the film is no more than its gimmick – and that gimmick requires keeping Paul in his box. As the closing credits roll to the jarring clang and twang of a hillbilly love song (WTF!), it is clear that director Rodrigo Cortés and writer Chris Sparling play Buried as a joke on the viewer, not like one of Rod Serling’s more sadistic yet meaningful dark twists, more like a thoughtless full stop placed on a filmmaking experiment that is essentially meaningless.