The central conceit of Buried is daring, to say the least. Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a truck driver delivering supplies to a community centre in Iraq, is captured by insurgents (or terrorists, or someone) and buried alive in a box with only a mobile phone and a Zippo lighter for company. The entire film is set inside the box with Paul while he negotiates with his captors, his employers, and the head of a hostage rescue organisation. With such an unconventional premise, the movie could only ever be amazing or terrible.
And sadly, it’s terrible.
It starts off strongly, with a few minutes of complete darkness and silence before we hear Conroy’s laboured breathing. He finds his lighter and the inside of the crude wooden box is illuminated; using the end of a nail, he saws through the restraints on his wrists and removes his gag. Then a phone rings, down at the bottom of his makeshift coffin. What follows is 90-odd minutes of increasing ridiculousness.
Conroy calls 911 and finds the super-calm operator little help. He calls his family but only gets through to voicemail. He calls the State Department, calls his employers, calls everyone, and has a series of awkward, expository conversations with dead voiced people. The point, then, is that no-one cares about what’s going on out in Iraq; that the US military is pretty useless; and that big corporations are more interested in protecting themselves from bad publicity than looking after their employees. A conversation with his aged mother attempts to wring some pathos out of the proceedings; a subplot involving one of Conroy’s colleagues hammers home the fact that his captors mean business, in case the whole being-buried-alive-in-a-box thing wasn’t enough to convince us. Ryan Reynolds does an admirable job of trying to carry the movie – since he’s the only person we see for the entire film, everything rests on his reactions – but the script is too upsettingly awful for him to succeed.
It’s just not plausible that none of the people he speaks to would get even slightly emotional. There’s no urgency in any of their voices, so the outcome of the movie is a forgone conclusion from the very beginning. No-one seems to disbelieve him when he screams that he’s buried in a box in Iraq, despite being on a very clear mobile line to a phone operator in Ohio, but no-one seems to be interested either. The dialogue is awkward, stagey; the conversation Conroy has with Dan Brenner at the hostage rescue organisation about other hostages who have previously been rescued is like no conversation two human beings have had with one another, ever. And the editing is painfully amateurish. There’s a scene where the camera zooms ominously and distractingly in on Conroy’s face while he talks; later, there’s an upwards zoom where the camera moves further and further away from Paul’s prone body, wooden box walls on either side of him, until we’re a good 20ft above him … but somehow still inside the box, still in the dark, still penned in by that box which is now inexplicably, for onscreen effect, twenty times the size it was earlier. It’s a weird thing to do, destroying your audience’s suspension of disbelief – we know Ryan Reynolds isn’t really alone in a box, we know there’s a camera crew there and after this scene he’s gonna get out and stretch his legs, but for the purpose of watching the film, we choose to forget that. By /actually showing us/ something that couldn’t possibly exist in the film, the filmmakers throw the artificiality of it all in our faces, and for no good reason.
The problem is that, having come up with the concept for a movie that’s all about dialogue and claustrophobia, the writers weren’t up to delivering: they weren’t seem capable of writing that dialogue, nor holding the audience’s attention. Thus we’re treated to a scene in which Conroy suddenly discovers that there’s a snake /inside his trousers/ and, when it slithers out and hisses at him from the bottom of his coffin, he douses it in alcohol from his hip flask, then sets it on fire with his Zippo. The snake slithers out of a hole in the side of the box, never to be seen again – the snake, or the hole. Conroy doesn’t even seem to register it, and somehow, that scene makes the casting of Ryan Reynolds seem bizarre.
Conroy, we’re told, has less than $700 to his name, which is why he took this awful job driving a truck in Iraq. He’s not a soldier, and he’s not much of anything, really; he’s not particularly clever, not particularly interesting, and his only other distinguishing feature is that he has to take pills to ward off anxiety. He doesn’t try to break out of the box, and after the initial wriggling around to cut off the ties on his wrists, he doesn’t do anything except lie in the box and make phone calls. So why cast someone as famously muscular and athletic and attractive as Reynolds? It seems like it would have made more sense to cast someone who looked less capable; someone who didn’t look like they could punch their way through the crappy wooden box. (Alright, depending on how deeply he was buried, the weight of the sand on top of the box might have caused that effort to fail, but we know he’s not that deep because his phone still works.) Towards the end of the film, the box starts to collapse anyway, and Conroy still doesn’t try to get out, instead wasting his last few breaths on stupid conversations with his ex-employers.
Nothing about Buried really works. Conroy is drawn with the broadest of strokes (his mum’s ill! He’s got a young son! He takes anxiety pills!). The dialogue is stilted. The pacing of the film is off – it’s far too long for what it is – and there’s no structure to speak of. The awkward attempt at turning Conroy’s captors into sympathetic, if desperate, people rather than monstrous terrorists utterly fails. And the ending is brainmeltingly stupid. Come on. This is nonsense. This is satire for morons. It’s first draft, badly written, poorly conceived crap designed to give people without any political awareness something to talk about.