"No one cares about the man that goes in the box, they only care about the one that comes out."
So says a character in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, a film that also included a character being buried alive. The difference between that film and Rodrigo Cortes' Buried is that we never had a point of view shot from inside the coffin. For 90 straight minutes.
From the opening breaths in the darkness, we are trapped along with Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) who wakes up in a wooden box with just a lighter and a cell phone to his list of assets. What we know is that Paul was a truck driver in Iraq, contracted by a U.S. company to deliver supplies. There was an ambush, he was knocked unconscious and now he is alone without the emergency contact number he was provided. You try calling any 9-1-1 line and relay this story to them.
Clearly, the first reaction to any gimmick movie that can be surmised in a single sentence is how the filmmakers are able to maintain it. Will they take a Lost-like approach and intersperse the terror with flashbacks to a happy home life or the moments leading up to the incident? What little extra crises can they come up with to break up the monotony of heavy breathing and panic? Such surprises will not be spoiled here, but one can say that Cortes and writer Chris Sparling have done a reasonable job at sustaining the gimmick even over the occasional flourish of the box's depth. Equal credit for the claustrophobia has to go to cinematographer Edward Glau for giving us about as much room to breathe as Paul.
While it could certainly do with a trim or two around the mid-section, Buried works as an all-out thriller, plus it comes pretty close to becoming a viable anti-war / pro-soldier statement as well. Of the many phone connections Paul makes, the runaround he receives from his corporate employers should inspire enough anger to extinguish all the oxygen wherever you're sitting. Paul's cries about lack of body armor and other supplies may not have helped him out of this particular quibble, but when your bosses ask for your social security number as a priority, it's not your bail out that they are worried about.
Buried is an easy film to get excited about just for its sheer audacity and the quick pitch to your horror buddies, but it is by far not a perfect film. Fitting right into the genre mold of an extended Twilight Zone episode (like The Box or the collective works of Shyamalan), Buried is more successful than most that try to stretch their short story ideas into a premise-wasting 90 minutes. Like another Sundance entry, Adam Green's Frozen, Cortes' film doesn't go overboard in inventing unbelievable new problems to solve. One particular experience in the box almost instantly loses its luster when you stop to consider the logistics of it all, but the sequence still manages to be very effective in the moment -- and then finds time to explain itself later. Ryan Reynolds has just the right blend of humor for this part. Not that Buried turns into a quippy laugh riot at his expense, but a casual zinger along the way (especially when dealing with a friend of his wife's) gives us a little breathing room too.
Why has Paul been left a cell phone with an Arabic dialect? Why take everything from his wallet but then leave him just enough survival gear? These are not questions of disbelief in retrospect, but ones that are carefully interwoven and never leave us hanging. There are only so many places to take us in the minimalist atmosphere of Paul's surroundings, and that audacity alone should provide Buried a healthy fanbase. Tighten the screws a few more times around the middle and we could have had a genuine classic on our hands. Alas, it is still probably a very good hour-long Twilight Zone episode. Or at least the cinema equivalent of Quentin Tarantino's CSI episode.