Close look at confined man, confounding mysteries
As premises go, the one for “Buried ’’ isn’t bad. What if Ryan Reynolds made an Olivia de Havilland movie? It’s “Lady in a Cage’’ or “The Snake Pit ’’ for subscribers of Gentleman’s Quarterly, only the sets are a lot smaller and the acting less likely to shatter your speakers. For about 95 minutes, Reynolds, playing an American truck driver named Paul Conroy, is stuffed, bloodied and bruised, into a wood coffin that appears to be interred significantly enough that he can’t muscle his way out but shallowly enough that his cellphone still gets reception. He also has a lighter, a pen, and a barely sufficient supply of oxygen.
The central mysteries — how did Paul get into this mess, how will he get out, where on earth is he? — are reasonably entertaining. But almost instantly the movie feels like an offshoot of the “Saw’’ horror franchise, in which characters awake to find themselves trapped in a game for their lives. They’re given guidelines and instructions and left to over-think killer mazes and riddles. Lionsgate is responsible for both “Buried’’ and the “Saw’’ films, and as reprehensibly sadistic as several of those movies are, there’s a prevailing moral framework that keeps them interesting. The movie also is similar to and lesser than the lunacy in Adrian Lyne’s shocker “Jacob’s Ladder’’ or the overcooked nonsense of the 2004 B-movie “Cellular,’’ in which Chris Evans tries to save Kim Basinger’s life through a mobile phone connection.
Director and editor Rodrigo Cortés and screenwriter Chris Sparling take a more pretentious route to relevance in “Buried.’’ They’ve injected the film with current political events that are props just as much as the lighter and the phone. Paul’s cell contains Arabic characters. He calls the FBI. The movie backs into its vague, conspiratorial war politics without being political. It does have a glimmer of farcical damnation. But Sparling is no Paddy Chayefsky. “Buried’’ works better as an evocation of “Twilight Zone’’ eeriness. Even then, it’s silly and gimmicky.
Whenever they can, which is pretty much the entire film, Cortés and his cinematographer, Eduard Grau, find neat stuff for the camera to do. It pivots and swoops. Long shots that take in all six-plus feet of Reynolds turn into tracking shots. There are ample close-ups of ears and a neck and nostrils. Tight space here feels like a figment of Paul’s imagination. If the camera can move so fluidly, why can’t he? He does try. Once, he switches positions, casting Reynolds’s length in a momentary comic-thriller: “Gulliver Underground.’’
Casting the rest of him was risky. Reynolds is often a peeved physical specimen. He has seemed as annoyed to be with Sandra Bullock as he has with Wesley Snipes. Reynolds’s default has always been a sarcasm that’s locked him out of seeming entirely human. In “Buried,’’ he’s neutralized. There’s an opportunity for him to make a couple of snide phone calls. But he’s prone and, for the most part, panicked. You miss his natural charisma, which has been snuffed out for the sake of synthetic drama. He’s a vertical actor, and by the time the movie is done ludicrously yanking his strings and stealing his air, you yearn to see him as he belongs: upright.