It would be easy, and a huge mistake, to dismiss BURIED as a stunt film. Sure, Ryan Reynolds spends the entire 94 minutes of the running time buried underground in a box, but such is the imaginative take on the subject by screenwriter Chris Sparling and director Roderigo Cortes, that the struggle of one confined man desperately trying to survive becomes a film that is, against all odds, visually dynamic. This is a riveting piece of work that becomes a parable of staggering impact.
The audience experiences the film in real time, starting in darkness at the moment that civilian contractor Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) awakens to the realization that he is in a box, and that the box is buried. It is the only time in the film when the audience knows more than the protagonist on screen. Conroy, recovering consciousness from the ambush to his truck convoy, slowly discovers the few resources available to him: a lighter, a flashlight, light sticks, a pencil, a knife, and a cell phone. That last, which should be the salvation of Conroy’s situation becomes instead a tool of the most exquisite torture. The text it displays is in Arabic, which Conroy does not understand. The calls he makes for help are met with skepticism by government and corporation functionaries. The calls to his wife go to her answering machine. The calls to his sister-in-law are gruesome exercises in family dysfunction. His company demands the safe number given him when he signed up, the which he doesn’t have on him. His government offers cautious encouragement that becomes increasingly hollow. They both discourage him from contacting the media, claiming it will only worsen his situation. His kidnapper demands an impossible amount of money that he can’t come up with, and that his employer and his government refuse to consider. The kidnapper’s opinion about media coverage is, as to be expected, completely different, as evidenced by their video release of what happens to another contractor also captured during the ambush, whose plight is immediately uploaded to the internet.
It is nothing short of a searingly visceral experience watching Reynolds on screen becoming the embodiment of terror, desperation, frustration, hope, and anger while the people on the other end of the phone line, voices audible to the audience, become equally alive in the theater of the audiences imagination. The effect on the audience of such raw emotion is electric. So engrossing is the drama playing out on the screen that there is no separation between actor and viewer. The confines of a coffin become a landscape rife with every element that constitutes the most effective and most engrossing thriller, with all the visual turbulence of action film played out in a space barely a foot high.
As Reynolds makes manifest Conroy’s inner turmoil, Cortes finds a seemingly infinite vocabulary of camera angles that remain at all times within the box, yet never for an instant allow the screen or the action to go static. The light of a single flame playing across Conroy’s face, the way the camera focuses on the inside lid of the box from Conroys POV, and then flips back to Conroy in full face, in profile, from the other end of the box, it combines seamlessly, moving the story along with the frenetic pace of Conroys adrenalin rush that accompanies the instinct for self-preservation that is in overdrive.
It is hard not to read metaphors into BURIED. There is the little guy caught in the cogs of big government and even bigger business that demand absolute loyalty, but are less than forthcoming in returning the sentiment, for example. Whatever the metaphor, though, the central premise at work here: the absolute preciousness of every human life, and why, as is taught in some schools of mysticism, the loss of one life is the destruction of an entire universe.