Don’t let a war ruin your movie

Buried could have been a fresh and peculiar thriller if only it didn’t shoehorn in the Iraq War.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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‘Don’t let a mobile phone ruin your movie.’

It seems that those ironic cynics at Orange, producers of the anti-marketing marketing filmlets that preface virtually every British cinema release, missed a trick with the Rodrigo Cortes-directed taphephobic thriller, Buried. For what is normally a pain in the narrative for the modern thriller, where the peril of the protagonist is undermined somewhat by the fact of help only being a touch-screen away, is an indispensable plot mechanism in Buried.

The reason for that – as the pre-release hype, not to mention the title, intimates – is that Buried is set entirely in a coffin. It features just one visible actor: Ryan Reynolds. So unless you’re currently pining for an alternate 1980s version of Buried, in which we get to watch a Hollywood sort-of-star slowly asphyxiate for no apparent reason, then you’ll be glad of that incessant buzzing and pinging of a mobile phone. It doesn’t ruin the movie; it makes it. That and the zippo lighter.

Although not quite up there with Krapp’s Last Tape, Buried is a drama conjured up from the barest of elements, the most meagre of resources. During the opening couple of minutes it’s as if the Spanish director is just bringing the component parts of the story together. Look, it says, out of nothing, something. In the beginning there was blackness, and then, suddenly, we hear the sound of breathing. Human breathing. Then the thumping starts, an indication that there is a solid world out there, in the dark. And then, at last, there was light. And now a face, a body, in a wooden coffin.

That is the premise. A man, whom we later come to know as American truck driver Paul Conroy, wakes up entombed, and he knows not why. He scrabbles about a bit. There’s a bit of histrionics. And then with the discovery of a mobile phone, the drama starts. Because it’s only through the various fraught, frustrated conversations that we learn a bit about Paul Conroy, what he does, what happened, and, to a lesser extent, what sort of man he is. And it’s also only through that phone that there is any hope of resurrection.

There’s no doubting the film’s central achievement: to do so much with so little. Cortes seems to revel in the pacing of the narrative, of deciding precisely when to give the drama some propulsion and when to let it flag, when to let the audience hope, and when to let us despair. At points it almost feels like an experiment, an examination of the nature of narrative suspense, of what makes us tick, as much as showing us what makes Conroy tick. Although one cynical move, which gives a new meaning to the phrase trouser snake, does suggest an exhaustion of dramatic ideas rather than their fruition.

More effective is the claustrophobic setting, aided and abetted by the up-close-and-personal camera work. Not in the visceral sense of ‘oh, that’s what it would be like to be buried alive’, or even ‘doesn’t Reynolds have thick bristles?’, but again in the dramatic sense. Conroy’s isolated, impotent situation is ours, the audience’s; and his partial, inadequate viewpoint is all that we have to go on. We yearn for some other perspective, some viewpoint that might literally shed light on the darkened proceedings. And it’s this prospect that drags us on, that is as vital to us looking for a point as it is to the character looking for a rescue.

Yet if this claustrophobic perspective, this frustrating limit to our knowledge, does seem to open up space for a more interesting film, this space is quickly filled by a really clumsy commentary on the Iraq War. It’s this that ruins Buried, not a mobile phone. It removes a certain depth to Buried, digging for it instead a very shallow interpretative grave.

Conroy, we learn, is a truck driver working in Iraq on behalf of an American contractor. As we discover, the bad guys here aren’t so much the kidnappers – despite their predilection for YouTube beheadings – as the Coalition of the Willing and Conroy’s smarmy employers, both of whom combine bureaucratic indifference with legal slipperiness and sheer disingenuousness. Their willingness to evade responsibility for Conroy becomes all too achingly metaphorical. His mess is Iraq’s, too. A mess better buried than confronted.

Which for anyone as unmoved by Reynold’s performance as I was does have its benefits. Shouty-angry – and yes voicemail can be annoying – is never going to ingratiate you to any would-be rescuers. Nor will it win you sympathy from an audience, unless brattish prattishness in a confined space is your thing. And the occasional lapses into frat-boy wiseacre mode seem to come from a supercilious place closer, perhaps, to Reynolds, than to a man buried alive somewhere in Iraq.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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