An entire film set inside a large wooden coffin buried somewhere in Iraq could have been unbearable to watch. However, concerns that this scenario could not sustain an entire film can be pushed aside as this is a compelling and thrilling film. From Lifeboat to Phone Booth, single setting films have used the limitations of their settings to facilitate incredible tension and drama, and Buried – one of the most extreme single setting films yet – does exactly this. As Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier demonstrated so poetically in The Five Obstructions, giving filmmakers severe restrictions can result in highly accomplished films.
The poor soul buried inside the coffin is US contractor Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), whose last memory was being in a truck convoy that was attacked by, he assumes, Iraqi insurgents. Inside the coffin he discovers that he has been left with a mobile phone (not his own) and various other objects that have been deliberately left there for him. As the film roughly unravels in real time, Paul has about 90 minutes of phone battery and air to figure out what is going on and get out of his nightmarish predicament.
Reynolds give a great performance and is very convincing as he goes through the various stages of panic, fear, anger, frustration and determination. Every action that Conroy has to perform is an ordeal and Reynolds conveys that extremely well with some help from strategic music placements and dramatic snap zooms. A lot of what makes Buried so gripping is Reynold’s performance as he gives the audience a good sense of his awful experience without the audience having to share that experience too overtly. It’s a claustrophobic film but we never feel claustrophobic while watching it.
While the scenario, scope, style and (relative) low budget of Buried make it a somewhat B-grade film in the Roger Corman and Larry Cohen tradition (by no means a bad thing) it also contains some very interesting subtexts. Conroy’s immense frustration at trying to get through to a human while using the phone is a dramatic statement about the dehumanisation of the modern world. The annoyances that most people have with automated menus, voice mails, unhelpful service staff and petty bureaucrats won’t come close to the annoyances Conroy experiences.
Most interesting is the commentary Buried makes about America being ‘dug in’ to the Iraq War, seemingly with no clear way of getting out. Conroy repeatedly informs various people that he calls that he is not the miliary but an American citizen who is only in Iraq for the work in order to make money for his family. He gradually realises that this means he has little value to anybody and nobody he has contact with can be trusted to help him. While Buried is certainly not advocating the actions of the Iraqi insurgents who are involved in the situation, it does acknowledge their situation and attempt to demonstrate why they respond the way that they do. The blurred nature of who exactly the real villains are gives Buried an additional layer of sophistication. This is an extremely well crafted film that will keep you on the edge of your seat right up to the very last shot.