Location, location, location, the saying goes, and that's what Buried is all about. The entire 90-minute film is set underground, in the dark, inside a coffin just big enough to hold both star Ryan Reynolds and an audience's undivided attention.
That's the gimmick, but that's not all there is to it. In fact, this one-man show is skillfully directed, shrewdly written, darkly funny, classically scored and acted right the fuck out of the park by a star not known for his dramatic chops.
Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, an American contractor driving trucks in Iraq, whose convoy gets ambushed and he's knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he finds himself in a horrifying situation: He's been buried alive with (among other things), a pencil, a lighter and a mostly charged BlackBerry. To make matters worse, those who took him hostage have some unreasonably steep demands for one innocent civilian.
What follows is a flurry of phone calls ' some sad, some amusing, most hurried and intense ' and other developments best left unrevealed. Not once does the film cut away to a flashback or a subplot. Director Rodrigo Cortés and writer Chris Sparling ask their audience for a little logistical wiggle room in terms of the available oxygen and cell reception, but they give their lead no wiggle room otherwise.
The impeccable sound work, sly lighting and clever production design combine to effectively create, and even enhance, Paul's claustrophobic circumstances, while Sparling's screenplay and Cortés' brisk editing help keep the pacing up as they find new hurdles to throw his way. The dilemmas are poured on a bit thick by the final reel, but not enough to negate our total visceral investment in the situation.
The sheer craftsmanship on display would all be for naught if there weren't a convincing and sympathetic figure around to keep us company, and Reynolds rises to the occasion here. Confined to acting opposite the mere voices of bosses, bureaucrats and bad guys, he's completely (understandably) panicked and confused and sad and angry and even amusingly bitter at times. (If anyone knows his way around a choice expletive, it's this saint of sarcasm.)
Paul's frustration and desperation are equally palpable; his ingenuity remains within reason and his genuine emotion prevents Sparling's evident feelings about what tends to happen to Americans who meddle in the Middle East from turning the coffin into a soapbox. Despite the utter lack of precedent in his filmography to date, Reynolds' work here stands on its own. It's a remarkable performance, stripped of artifice in a film that thrives on it.
Buried isn't the most airtight thriller in hindsight, but it is a terrifically inventive and tremendously effective one. It's compelling enough to rank among the year's best films, and it's exciting enough to wonder what might happen if more filmmakers challenged themselves to be this narrow-minded.