Cinematic claustrophobia seems to be in this fall. Not long after “Devil,” M. Night Shyamalan’s tale of five characters trapped in a stalled elevator, Rodrigo Cortes does that movie one better by spinning a tale of a man kidnapped by insurgents and buried in a coffin in the Iraqi desert. The camera never moves from the wooden box in which he’s imprisoned.
So this is literally a one-man show, with Ryan Reynolds acting up a storm as Paul Conroy, an American truck driver trying to make a buck by signing up for a job during the American occupation. But his convoy’s ambushed, and he’s the sole survivor. Awakening in his uncomfortable situation, he’s understandably terrified and tries desperately to escape. We watch him do so for nearly two hours, becoming more and more frantic as fissures develop in the coffin that let the sand pour in and a snake makes an appearance in a supporting role—the biggest one in the film. (Everyone else is just a disembodied voice—though you’ll certainly recognize Stephen Tobolowsky’s.)
The premise of being buried alive is hardly new, of course—it was a virtual leitmotif in Poe, and even “CSI” based an episode on it (and when a Jerry Bruckheimer procedural uses an idea, you can be certain it’s an old one). But the picture that “Buried” most resembles is actually Anatole Litvak’s “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948), with Barbara Stanwyck—and especially the earlier, more compact radio version with Agnes Moorehead—about a lonely, isolated woman who discovers that her husband is about to kill her and tries to convince others of her situation by phone.
That’s because in his plight Conroy is provided with cell phones, with which he can not only communicate with his kidnapper (who’s demanding a hefty ransom), but with others whose voices he wants to hear (his wife, of course), or those he hopes can help to find and rescue him (government officials, the staff of the firm he works for). What this brings are lots of frustrations having to do with answering machines, acquaintances who hang up on him, bureaucrats more interested in insuring that the kidnappers are annihilated and the press doesn’t get an embarrassing story than in saving him, and company hacks looking for ways to avoid liability for his demise. It’s a scenario that creates suspense, as is so often the case these days, from batteries that are inevitably dead or running down and out-of-range messages on phone screens.
It must be said, of course, that the movie does generate some visceral tension—how could such a situation not? And though Reynolds’ forte is really lighter fare—he reminds you of those unfortunate times when Robert Cummings tried to do drama (one of the biggest mistakes Hitchcock ever made)—he’s certainly adequate, managing to keep your attention and even earn your sympathy.
But ultimately the film doesn’t manage to go very far beyond its basic setup. In more expert hands than those of Reynolds, writer Chris Sparling and director/editor Rodrigo Cortes, one might expect the story to tap into undercurrents of real human tragedy. But “Buried” doesn’t. Instead it satisfies itself with cynical observations about governmental crassness and ineptitude and corporate greed. We don’t get much of a feel for Conroy as a person; he remains a callow guy, whose relationships with family and friends—at least as they’re revealed through his phone conversations—don’t go deeper than what one would get in a television movie or episode of a crime drama. The picture ends up more an exercise in bare-bones cinema than a penetrating drama, and though it’s been executed efficiently, it fails to be emotionally compelling.
Of course, one could say the same thing about Poe. But in his case you have the language to feed on. Here the words are as tasty as sand, and just about as artistically nourishing.