Rodrigo Cortes’ sparse thriller plays as if the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock dared him to one up Lifeboat. Set in a coffin hidden several feet deep in the Iraqi sand, Cortés‘ flick sticks to the constraints of Chris Sparling’s script; lighting every scene with whatever sole star Ryan Reynolds’ kidnapped truck driver digs up in his living tomb. Lionsgate snatched up the picture at Sundance and there’s no doubt everyone behind this minimalist stunt will make their money back from those curious to see how well they pulled off the feat. (Answer: reasonably.) Buried pins us in Reynolds’ perspective from the start: the screen is black, the sound is hushed. We hear Reynolds wake up in the dark, his shallow sleep breathing turning into panic and hyperventilation as he beats the ceiling and walls of his box. Together, we discover his horror. And when he finds a Zippo in his pocket—the film’s MVP—we get weak yellow light that splays across the cheap wooden boards. Reynolds has been gagged and bound. But freeing himself is still just a marginal improvement.
When your only character is helpless and set-less, there isn’t much your movie can do. Reynolds can’t even stand, and to the film’s credit Cortés doesn’t sneak in any flashbacks or dream sequences. Reynolds can only do one thing: make calls on the Arabic cellular planted by his captors. A whole genre of horror flicks has found ways to block their victims from calling 911. Reynolds can make all the 911 calls he wants—the operators can’t and won’t help this crazy crackpot who claims he’s trapped in a coffin.
The best parts of Sparling’s script play like an absurdist snuff film. Reynolds’ truck driver isn’t smart—watching him make one dumb move after another is agony. But when one stateside dispatcher after another puts him on hold or treats him like a crank, we wonder if the terrorists’ torture plot is to make him dependent on the kindness of American strangers. Even when he calls his employer, he’s shunted to an answering machine. (That’s one way to make your point about dispassionate bureaucrats.)
Yes, this is a film where every plot point is a phone call. When Reynolds’ cell loses a bar of power its like a bomb detonated. But by that point, an hour in, our energy’s flagging like his reception and the flick fumbles its attempts to give us any juice. The melodramatic score is overkill and in one scene Cortés invents a new meme: “jumping the snake.” We’re intimate with Reynolds’ stubble and the nervous sweat beading on his chest. But there’s just enough bleak humor to keep us on the hook. There are bitter giggles at his captor’s demands for “Five million money,” and the quick beat when Reynolds wonders if its okay to bill him 25 cents for the operator to automatically connect his call. We slowly realize that Cortés is willing to take us as morally (and politically) dark as we dare. The FBI asks Reynolds not to call the media and create an international incident. Should he trust them? Do we? Like him, we can’t see out of his box—we can’t see the big picture of the struggle in Iraq. We only see one man’s fear, and ultimately, that’s what wars are made of.