A few years back I visited with a bickering couple trapped in Open Water with a bunch of hungry sharks. Just last month I watched three unlucky kids get Frozen on a forgotten ski-lift. And just a few hours ago things got really claustrophobic as I watched Ryan Reynolds get Buried inside a coffin. I call 'em "gimmick thrillers," which isn't a knock -- unless you can't pull the gimmick off.
Yep, virtually every frame of Rodrigo Cortes' Buried takes place below ground, inside a coffin, with poor Ryan Reynolds clinging to every last drop of breath ... although actually he never really comes close to suffocating, which is part of the flick's problem. But more on that later.
The premise is this: Paul Conroy is an American truck driver working in Iraq, and as the film opens ... we find Paul buried in a coffin with nothing but a Zippo (that is apparently heat-proof), a Blackberry, a pen, and a flask of alcohol. Slowly he begins to realize that this is no ordinary case of being buried alive (if there even is such a thing) -- Paul is actually being held hostage in a rather impractical way. Apparently Paul's abductors will come dig him up if someone can wire the kidnappers five million bucks. In two hours.
So at this point you're probably wondering how a film can fill 90+ minutes with just one guy in a box, but (aside from a few roadblocks and narrative glitches) Cortes does a pretty slick job of presenting his crafty little gimmick. Unfortunately for every solid jolt and every worthwhile contribution from Reynolds (who really is quite good throughout), we get something that simply strains credibility to the maximum.
Conroy's cell phone, for example, gets better reception underground than mine does on a mountainside. Plus we never really get a sense that Paul might actually asphyxiate (despite his constant usage of an oxygen-devouring mega-flamed Zippo lighter), nor do the moments of claustrophobic panic ever come close to the creepiness of similar sequences in films like Kill Bill, The Vanishing, or Buried Alive.
And yet ... for all the little glitches and strange diversions (Conroy phoning his senile old mama is a goofy misstep), there's still something quietly impressive about Cortes' commitment to his narrative trick. For example, the director actually finds several slick and interesting ways to display the inside of a rectangular box, and for a flick that spends its entire running time inside a coffin, Buried sure isn't boring.
Buried is at its best when its jumping from phone call to phone call, with Conroy desperately trying to find the right bureaucrat who could save his life. Chris Sparling's screenplay wrings some fun from the whole "Americans shouldn't be in Iraq in the first place" angle, and Conroy's frequent conversations with a hostage negotiator named Brenner are both intense and strangely fascinating. (There's also a throwaway bit involving a "coffin visitor" that's quite creepy.)
But for all off Cortes' visual flair and Sparling's subterranean roadblocks, Buried is pretty much Ryan Reynolds' show all the way. The actor, generally known for action, comedy, and wise-assery, helps Buried to coast past the rough spots and truly sell the film's highlights, particularly in Act III, when a few nasty surprises show up.