Thriller is good to the last gasp
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 1, 2010
With "Buried," director Rodrigo Cortés and actor Ryan Reynolds engage in the kind of extreme real-time filmmaking once practiced by Alfred Hitchcock in "Rope" (and, more recently, on "24"), setting up an experiment in limitation that, at least until the movie's deflating final payoff, manages to tap into our deepest anxieties.
From its very first moments, "Buried" lets viewers know they're in for something different -- and disturbing. With the screen in complete darkness, we initially hear only bumping, then a man panting and groaning. Finally, the flick of a lighter: It's Paul Conroy (Reynolds), an American contractor in Iraq who has been kidnapped, buried and held for ransom, with air for only 90 minutes -- which is, conveniently enough, just less than the film's running time.
It turns out that Conroy has more tools than his Zippo to get out of his predicament: There's a mobile phone and a flask, and some other accouterments that manage to infuse "Buried" with the tantalizing possibility of escape. And perhaps the only people more eager than Conroy to get out of the box will be filmgoers themselves, who through Cortés's ingenious visual and sound design are plunged into the protagonist's plight with claustrophobic verisimilitude.
With the screen often blanking out into unsettling black and the sound of sifting sand and other unwelcome intrusions ramping up the anxiety level, "Buried" delivers the kind of immediate experience too often missing in movies that are simply pictures of people talking. At its best, it represents cinema at its most intensely physical and psychological.
Reynolds, best known as a romantic comedy leading man, earns his bones as a dramatic actor, with points for eschewing vanity and starring in a movie where he can't be seen much of the time. As Conroy's situation grows more desperate, Reynolds conveys genuine emotion along with the film's more obvious visceral impact. The trick, for the filmmakers, is making Conroy's plight just bearable enough for the audience to want to hang in there with him, and they succeed admirably (at least until they don't), with moments of dark humor and, improbably enough, nail-biting action.
As an up-close manifestation of one of our most enduring nightmares, "Buried" is a well-made, excruciating exercise in containment and sustained suspense. It's a breakout moment for Reynolds. Is it a fun hour and a half? No. But it succeeds within its own straitened contours. It's an intriguing squirm. Now, please get me outta here.
Contains profanity and some violence.