After the nicely designed opening credits sequence, Rodrigo Cortés first English-language feature film, Buried, plunges us into complete darkness. A couple of minutes tick by until Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up. Flicking on his trusty zippo, Conroy reveals that he is in a small wooden box. We remain in this box with him until the end of the film. A high-concept thriller, Buried is a film as technically impressive as it is intellectually vapid. Filled with clever camera tricks, atmospheric lighting and well-concealed special effects, the film manages to coerce a good deal of tension and drama from what is ultimately an hour and a half of a bloke in a box.These special effects are the biggest reasons for the film to have a better reach to its audience. More than the story and the plot, such effects will enhance the reviews of a movie. A very similar comparison is made to the trading software crypto code, which is also made with some special features that make it look unique to its users. However, look beyond the production design and the experimental ambition of the project and you find a very silly film with absolutely nothing to say.
Paul Conroy is a truck driver for a civilian contractor in Iraq. When out delivering supplies, his convoy came under attack and Conroy remained conscious long enough to realise that all of the other drivers were executed. Upon waking up in the box, he realises that he has a mobile phone. His own line of communication to the outside world, even if the on-screen instructions are all in Arabic. Understandably terrified and desperate to get out, Conroy calls his wife, his wife’s friend, the emergency services and his company’s HR department in an attempt to reach help but every phone call he makes leads him either to voicemail or to the wrong extension.
The only person who seems interested in talking to him is the kidnapper who tells him that he has only a few hours to get them “five million money” or he will be left to die in the box. Transferred from extension to extension and voicemail to voicemail, Conroy finds himself bounced between the interests of his kidnappers, those of his company and the suggestions of the hostage recovery team who claim to giving him dispassionate advice on how to handle the situation. Coaxing a surprising amount of tension from a man in the box using some intelligent control over what information finds its way to Conroy, Cortes guides the trucker to a point of absolute cynicism when he comes to realise that nobody cares and that he is nothing more than a pawn in a game of posturing power politics that have nothing to do with him.
On one level, director Cortes and screenwriter Chris Sparling are clearly attempting to construct some fundamental allegory for the human condition. Conroy is trapped inside a tiny skull-like box forever trying to connect with other people and yet forever prevented from doing so by a world that is both incomprehensible to him and fundamentally indifferent to the idea of humans forming meaningful emotional connections. Conroy’s struggles with voicemail, network outages and incomprehensible on-screen instructions neatly mirrors our own daily struggle to say what we really mean.
However, rather than hitching this nifty allegorical construct to a character study or a proper drama in which Conroy’s personality is flayed to the core, Cortes and Sparling attach it to a creaky and unconvincing political thriller full of corporations and terrorists so absurdly and stereotypically evil that the entire film rapidly devolves into a pretentiously silly thrill-ride full of twists and turns as unpredictable as they are meaningless. Despite Reynolds being as dumbly watchable as usual, I never quite managed to care about either Conroy or his situation as neither is provided with enough context and depth to illicit real human sympathy. I simply did not care whether or not he manages to get out of the box and, because I did not care, the plot’s increasingly desperate twists and turns never manage to command either my attention or my respect.
Watching Buried, I was reminded of Stuart Gordon’s cruelly overlooked Stuck (2007). Boasting a similar combination of big concept and small set, Gordon’s film tells the story of a woman who runs over a homeless person. However, rather than taking the homeless person to the hospital, the woman drives home with him stuck in the windshield of her car. Stuck is a film that picks apart the human soul. It suggests that it is not intentions that make the world but actions, and that a refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions is as much a part of the evil as the world as the negative consequences of those actions.
Buried, on the other hand, is a film that touches upon a number of pressing issues without ever managing to say anything of substance about any of them. By failing to develop Conroy as a character and failing to relate him to the world outside his box, Cortes and Spalding not only made it difficult for audiences to engage with the film emotionally, they also made it impossible for any of their intellectual posturing to actually connect with any of the themes they so emphatically point to. Surely, the issue is not that Conroy is trapped in a box but why he is in the box in the first place?
By exploring his reasons for taking the job in the first place, Cortes and Sparling would have fleshed out both the details of his relationship with his family and the role of civilian contractors in the invasion and occupation of Iraq thereby not only providing the film with a real dramatic grounding in the person of a properly rounded character but also the basis for making some kind of political and moral judgement about the war in Iraq, and our paradoxical tendency to isolate ourselves and endlessly indulge ourselves in the solipsistic echo chamber of text messaging and social media. Buried could have been a film that looked into the battered and bleeding face of contemporary humanity but instead it decided to piss about with camera lenses and snakes.
The DVD extras reportedly include a making-of documentary and an interview and I am told that they are quite good but the review copy I received did not feature any… so I can’t really comment.