What to do when trapped underground

Buried (MA). Director: Rodrigo Cortés. Starring: Ryan Reynolds, José Luis García Pérez, Robert Paterson. 95 minutes

Ryan Reynolds, BuriedNinety minutes stuck in a box — not the most compelling sales pitch for a film. Until you realise that a set-up like that requires plenty of clever scripting and camera work and a great lead performance to succeed. The buzz is that Buried succeeds very well. I concur.

As the film's hero, all-American truck driver Paul Conroy, Ryan Reynolds offers an arresting performance. Paul spends the duration of the film inside a rudimentary timber coffin, buried, apparently, in the Iraq desert. Best known for his comedic work, Reynolds utilises his comic timing to match the beats and rhythm of this pacy thriller and to give the character a manic edge.

The camera takes us into every corner of the coffin. We share that confined space with Paul, along with his claustrophobia, his panic attacks, his fear and occasional hope, his determination to find an escape, his slumping hopelessness. Director Cortés serves also as editor of the film, and thus deftly controls the space and pace of his story.

The coffin is not bare; Paul has a selection of tools at his disposal. Primarily a mobile phone, left by the kidnapper, which Paul uses to make contact with his family, and with those he hopes can rescue him. These variously panicked, anguished and angry conversations allow Paul to spell out his back story: he's a civilian contractor who was working in Iraq delivering supplies. His last memory prior to waking up in the coffin is of his convoy being attacked by insurgents.

Lighting is key to the film's effectiveness. Long seconds are spent in total darkness, puncutred by the arythmic percussion of Paul's rasping breath and his bumps and scrapes against the sides of the coffin. At other times, he is (and we are) offered relief: the orange flicker thrown by a Zippo lighter; the phone's ghostly blue hue; the green of a glow-stick; the tenuous glare of the world's most unreliable torch. These shades and effects are cleverly used to control the mood of the film and provide visual interest.

To the viewer, the other characters in Paul's life exist only as disembodied voices set adrift within his isolation cell. In that regard Buried can perhaps be taken as an allegory for modern communication, where the handheld electronic device is the primary conduit to networks of interaction and intimacy.

In any case it is a credit to scriptwriter Chris Sparling that the briefest of phone exchanges evoke nuanced relational tapestries. One terse exchange between Paul and his sister-in-law can make you picture what Christmas lunch might be like with these two present. And a heartfelt phone call to Paul's infirm elderly mother captures the essence of a loving relationship, and of age and the waning of life.

One of the most important voices is that of Dan Brenner (Paterson), head of the hostage working group in Iraq. Dan's reassuring, paternal tone help keep Paul calm and offer him hope that they are doing everything they can to rescue him. We believe him, although the reality of Paul's situation is such that you can't help but suspect Dan's role is more as palliative carer than knight in shining armour.

Despite its topical setting, Buried is not primarily a comment on the rightness of US military action in Iraq. That said, it does tick off a checklist of themes that set it alongside the fraught reality of hostage situations conducted by insurgents in the Middle East and broadcast on networks such as Al Jazeera.

It captures a sense of futility regarding such situations for both captor and captive. It contrasts the infuriatingly rational governmental policy of refusing to pay ransom money, with our intimate experience of Paul's human suffering. It elicits empathy for the 'villain': Dan reprimands Paul for describing his captors as 'terrorists'; they are driven by desperation and a desire to preserve their families' wellbeing.

But because Paul is not a soldier, but a civilian, the true evil in the film turns out to be cold bureaucracy. The responses of Paul's employer to his situation are downright Orwellian. It is this more than anything that gives the film's finely tuned thrills a lasting, sickening resonance that in the screening attended by this reviewer provoked sounds of disgust from fellow theatre goers. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail

Topic tags: Buried, Rodrigo Cortés, Ryan Reynolds, José Luis García Pérez, Robert Paterson, Chris Sparling



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