Friday, October 15, 2010

Boxed In: Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried

In Rodrigo Cortés’s modest thriller Buried, Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver in Iraq who is hijacked and buried alive. The drama takes place entirely within the confines of his wooden coffin. When I first heard about the picture last summer, my instincts told me that while this formal exercise in claustrophobia would likely be effective (after all, who isn’t afraid of being buried alive?), where could it possibly go dramatically? But then I started reading all the critical praise it received when it premiered at TIFF in September. So I decided to check it out when it opened.

I should have trusted my first instincts.

There’s no question that Buried gets you gasping for air from its opening frames. But, from there, the picture has only two ways to go; either Conroy suffocates before the final credits, or he is miraculously found and lives to breath fresh air again. The existential crisis here is pretty rudimentary. When Conroy awakens into the nightmare of finding himself underground, he quickly realizes that he and the rest of his convoy had been ambushed. The insurgents have equipped him with a cellphone and a Zippo, so he immediately attempts to contact his wife, his employers and the FBI. In each case, he encounters voice mail, bureaucratic indifference and helplessness. Initially, the irony of contrasting his desperate circumstances with the lackadaisical routine of everyone else’s daily life is funny. But the ironies start to grow as thin as the oxygen in the coffin when Conroy hears the kidnappers demand five million dollars in ransom in order to have him released. The rest of the movie is a race against time.

Ryan Reynolds is getting much praise for what is obviously a very difficult performance. Reynolds isn’t a bad actor, but he’s a very conscientious one. In Definitely, Maybe (2008) and The Proposal (2009), his self-effacing sincerity came across as a little bland. But in Adventureland (2009), he turned in a role with more discordant shadings, playing hip dude to a group of youngsters at an amusement park, while simultaneously hiding a deeper, disconsolate loneliness. In Buried, Reynolds might be believable as a decent fellow in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the gimmick of the story leaves him little room to move as an actor. All he can do is respond to the desperate circumstances forced upon him rather than delve into the kind of character he is playing. (He does have a particularly touching moment though when he is preparing his will.)

Many writers and directors of horror thrillers have delved into the fears that lie at the heart of Buried. Edgar Allan Poe, for one, wrote a compelling and unnerving study in narcolepsy in “The Premature Burial.” But, in that story, the fear of suffocation was part of the texture of a larger narrative. In Buried, everything is contained in Conroy’s frantic struggle to survive. However, there is an implied larger meaning in the story. Besides making a heart-stopping thriller, Cortés also sees an opportunity to sneak some opportune metaphors about the Iraq War into that submerged box. But rather than invest this political terrain with some complexity; he works over our fear of being buried alive as a means to refute the U.S. involvement.

That’s why it’s no accident that Paul Conroy isn’t a soldier, but a kidnapped civilian. His kidnappers are also not the true believers of the insurgency, but the victims of war. I’d go even further in saying that the largely indifferent, or inept, responses to Conroy’s pleas for help are also not circumstantial. They’re proof of our complicity in the lives being lost in an unpopular war. (Conroy’s desperate pleas on his phone to an insurance company, where they begin disputing his claim, even tests the bounds of credibility.) 

Underlying the prurient dread of Buried is the notion that if the U.S. maybe hadn’t invaded Iraq, there wouldn’t be innocent American bodies anonymously buried in desert graves. Given the enthusiastic response to Buried, Cortés may know how to make audiences gasp with suspense while his hero gasps for air. But doesn't he also realize that by exploiting an audience’s worst primitive fears, he's also found a crudely manipulative way to make an anti-war statement?

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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