Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 01, 2010 9:48 am 
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Claustrophobia, politics, and a cell phone

This thriller about a US contractor locked in a wooden box by terrorists in Iraq blends horror, melodrama and action-adventure in a series of literally breathless and claustrophobic events. Buried may ultimately not be so simple -- it's all in the writing -- but its means are minimalist. There's only one (visible) character, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), who's been buried alive. After a while we learn he's an American non-military employee working as a truck driver in Iraq and his convoy was ambushed and his teammates killed or captured.

Buried evokes universal fears dealt with in that famous Poe story, "The Premature Burial." Only Poe's narrator had an odd form of recurrent catatonia and shared the fear of many in the nineteenth century of being mistakenly entombed. Conroy has been sealed into a wooden coffin on purpose by captors in a war zone.

At first, the screen is black and we're restricted to listening to knocks and groans. After a while Conroy finds a Zippo and its light shows his dirty, sweaty face and the upper confines of the box. He soon locates a cell phone down by his side; later he scrunches down and finds a a few more things. The phone is the essential motor of the drama.

It's not his phone but an Iraqi one, all in Arabic, but he figures out how to use it. Miraculously he's able to call 911 in an American city, the FBI, the contracting firm he works for, and his wife Linda (Samantha Mathis) -- but not without horrible delays and frustrations. Through the State Department he's switched to a Brit in Iraq, the Hostage Working Group's Dan Brenner (Robert Patterson), who remains in touch. He gets through to a number on the phone that's the Iraqi, Jabir, who planted the phone (José Luis García Pérez, crudely impersonating a mean, angry Arab). Jabir wants Conroy to raise millions in ransom money and gives him just a couple hours to do so.

Through these phone calls, the drama waxes by turns ironic, hopeful, heartrending, political. If Conroy is just a civilian employee, whose convoy was delivering kitchen supplies to a community center, is he guilty of the wrongs of the American occupation? We may have to consider these questions. Conroy's description of what happened prior to his being knocked out is the more vivid for never being on screen. All these conversations make Conroy emerge as a plaything in a much larger game.

The the ironies grow from trivial to cosmic. What city's 911 does he want, he's asked. The FBI demands his Social Security number. His corporate employer (in the icy voice of Stephen Tobolowsky) is far more interested in damage control than in Conroy's fate. Told the government won't negotiate with terrorists, Conroy still makes a video pleading for ransom money and it goes viral on YouTube. As the Brit tries to trace the phone through an Egyptian exchange to come and find him, Conroy's running out of air and the cell battery's running out of juice. The writing modulates rather neatly from familiar to more extreme kinds of frustration. It's never nice to be put on hold, but how about if your air is running out and only terrorists know where you are?

The thirty-something Conroy is young and tough but he's also an odd bird to have chosen work in Iraq because he's on medication for anxiety. He is running out of patience and has several noisy tantrums as we go along. Ryan Reynolds, who was previously seen as a dumb hunk with false musical pretensions in Adventureland, is a tall muscular fellow who brings a surprising amount of physicality to his confined role: you can almost feel him trying to muscle a split in the wood walls of his prison. Late in the game -- Jabir has given him a tight deadline, apart from the exhaustion of air and the phone -- there's a scary intruder, and some of the stuff that turns up in the box seems unnecessary except to liven things up. The music gets a little over-emphatic toward the end. The camera gets a little trickier too, and in so doing calls too much attention to itself. But everything stays inside the box. In its minimalist confinement Buried avoids the cruder trappings of horror movies while remaining quite horrible and scary and Chris Sparling, the writer, deserves credit for thinking of so many possibilities and implications. Director/editor Rodrigo Cortéz, who made this film in his native Spain, keeps up a good pace. Whether you have the fortitude to sit through this in a theater or want to wait for the DVD, this is a creditable piece of work. The context is new and fresh, but its darker ironies link Buried with the best horror classics.

Buried releases in selected US theaters September 24, 2010.

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