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Sharp thriller Buried unearths all the potential in its ingenious gimmick

Notes From Underground

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Is Buried, a thriller taking place entirely inside a coffin, gimmicky? Of course. But it's a brilliant gimmick — one that allows director Rodrigo Cortés to show off his entire repertoire of unusual camera angles. As Cortés claims in interviews, he has a Hitchcockian bent for projects with odd restrictions. While seven coffins were constructed to provide a varied array of sets for Buried, the film is entirely lit by on-screen sources, such as the glow-sticks and Zippo lighter held by actor Ryan Reynolds. Refreshingly, it seems to have been made with no regard for its eventual DVD release. The 90 seconds immediately following the opening credits simply consist of heavy breathing in complete darkness. I foresee DVD buyers and renters wondering if something's wrong with their disc.

As Buried begins, Paul Conroy (Reynolds) wakes up inside a coffin. A civilian truck driver in Iraq, he has been knocked out and kidnapped. His coffin contains a cell phone, a few sources of light and little else. When he first tries to call 911, he winds up reaching an operator in Ohio. He talks to quite a few people, ranging from the terrorists who kidnapped him (and now demand a million-dollar ransom) to his senile mother. The film sketches in his backstory without spelling anything out too bluntly. It takes place in real time, as Paul's panic mounts. With two very brief exceptions, no actor except Reynolds appears on-screen.

If Buried has an agenda, its main targets aren't the ones you might expect. It depicts Arabs solely as faceless villains, but it reserves far more bile for American corporations. They're the subject of a scene that might be the film's most disturbing and brutal, even though it contains no violence. Buried also reflects a thoroughly wired world, in which a video shot in a buried coffin can wind up with 47,000 hits on YouTube.

Like Reynolds' impressively panicky performance, the movie works in large part because it amplifies the small annoyances of dealing with corporate bureaucracy over the phone to the point of life and death. Paul may be able to contact a wide range of people, but none of this communication empowers him. This point may not be particularly original, but it's rarely been expressed with such visceral force. Buried has far more to say about the pitfalls of the Internet than the over-hyped Catfish (see pg. 66).

It wouldn't be accurate to say that Buried isn't really about the Iraq War, as it's full of populist anger about that conflict's consequences. But ultimately it has more in common with the nightmarish mediascapes of David Cronenberg's Videodrome or Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse than with other Iraq War films. The medium, in Cortés' ingeniously wound thriller, is the mess.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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