Buried: Is Claustrophobia Cool?

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The Iraq war has been fodder for a great deal of movies. Many of them are terrible but Buried stands out not only for its subject matter but for director Rodrigo Cortes’ sheer technical skill. Ryan Reynolds stars as a trapped contractor named Paul Conroy in a coffin underneath the Iraqi desert. That’s it—no shots of rescuers or flashbacks to the events leading up to his ordeal, just him inside a coffin with a rapidly-dying cell phone and other belongings. In other words, think the scene in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Uma Thurman is trapped in a coffin and stretch it out for 90-minutes. What’s more shocking than the story line is just how well it works.

Buried is a thriller-horror film that takes place in Iraq; no attempts are made to provide a larger context other than what happened on that day. Cortes deserves  a lot of credit for transforming the banal into the life altering. Bad phone reception, government bureaucracy and sheer frustration are just some of the things that Conroy must contend with. Not to mention, he’s doing so from a freaking coffin. Ordinary people already want to bash in their brains when being put on hold by an operator or at the mercy of an automated service, but the transgression of a film whose main character is trapped in a coffin is pure torture. This element of the film almost transforms it into farce, especially when the consequences escalate to ludicrous levels.

To whit, Conroy’s cell phone—the key to the outside world—becomes a bearer of bad news, able to destroy his will to live at a moment’s notice. Soon the whole world knows about his ordeal and still, he’s  literally the loneliest person in the world as well as an expendable employee. Cortes is able to show the forces at work above ground through cell phone conversations illustrating the absurd, and cruel,  nature of the situation. The players above ground are gods–hearing his pleas for help and his confessions.

Conroy’s predicament is also illustrated by the forces at work inside the coffin. Cortes weds horror with inevitability to create a feeling of knowing dread. The coffin serves a purpose after all, but the cruel joke is that the insurgents would save themselves a lot of work if the protagonist dies. There is no ideology besides vague references to the invasion or a conversation that holds for no more than five minutes. Communication is stripped to its’ bare essentials and Conroy along with the viewer is forced to imagine what is truly going on above ground. Inarguably, the scariest aspect of the film is not knowing what will happen next—not knowing if a ransom video recorded on a Blackberry will drain the battery or if the coffin will cave. In this way, Cortes applied the Hitchcock maxim of the unopened door with aplomb.

With that being said, the film works best when taken for what it is, a simple story that offers immediacy in exchange for any meaningful memories; the fast food version of cinema. The main character is strikingly bland and banal, nothing about his personality truly resonates with the audience save for moments of sheer terror. Since that’s the case, the film relies solely on premise and execution, which worked wonders.

Buried succeeds partly because the Iraq war occurs in the background. Muslim calls to prayer, menacing calls from the kidnappers and the difficulty of navigating a phone formatted in Arabic are simply peripheral elements to the film. The coffin is a cage, a protector and even a useful tool. In other words, hundreds of people are working to either save him or profit from his misery, yet the film’s very nature places them out of the picture to be replaced by grains of sand seeping through. Suddenly everything is magnified to ludicrous proportions.

Besides the story, the technical aspects of the film should also be noted. The claustrophobia caught on film is simply astounding—every little crack, grain of wood and tight (and I mean tight!) camera angles are quite captivating, which leads to impressive Ryan Reynolds’ performance.

Typically, an actor has to be quite good to pull off this type of film, and Reynolds proves he has what it takes. Alternately defiant, pitiful, angry and scared, Reynolds spends much of the film trying not to lose it and emerges a changed man, but in a tragic sense. Alone and abandoned, the faint glimmer of hope surfaces with the realization that in two hours, he is a dead man. Reynolds channels his fright and sheer will to live with a performance that is competent if not extraordinary.

This is a film with a single purpose: to scare and thrill the living crap out of you. There are no deep meanings to ponder and off-putting pretension, just a single man in a wooden box. Take it for what it is, a nice way to spend an afternoon or prepare for Halloween’s impending scary movie marathons. A viewer would be hard pressed to ask for anything else. I surely didn’t.

Buried opens in wide release October 8th.