'Buried' is alive with white-knuckle tension

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 7, 2010 - 10:19 PM

Ryan Reynolds, playing a regular Joe kidnapped in Iraq, gives a barnstorming performance in this nerve-racking thriller.

Are you ready to be scared? The Sundance hit "Buried" is the sort of harrowing film that keeps you awake at night, chilled to the core, clutching your blankets with fear.

Crafted with Hitchcockian style, this hard-edged thriller features a horrific yet plausible story, masterful filmmaking and bravura acting. The twists don't stop until the bitter end, playing with your mind like a wicked psychiatrist. From the stunning opening hook to the haunting conclusion, "Buried" is a classic in the truest sense.

Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver hauling freight between military bases in Iraq. Paul is not a battle-hardened soldier, just an Everyman who took a dangerous, highly paid job to help his family. But briefings about explosive devices and insurgent rocket attacks could not prepare him for what he must endure. Following an ambush, Paul wakes up to find himself buried alive inside a coffin.

His captors have given him a video-equipped cell phone programmed in Arabic. He has 90 minutes to arrange their $5 million ransom demand -- or to outsmart the kidnappers -- before he runs out of oxygen. Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés takes this simple premise and makes it an utterly compelling survival story with political overtones, increasing the tension as if the theater seats had thumbscrews attached.

Paul makes a lot of mistakes. His calls to the State Department, his employer and his home hit roadblocks of disbelief, voice mail, phone tag and poor reception. His captors want him to use the phone to broadcast a diatribe against the United States, and they use very unpleasant means to persuade him.

Washington insists that he remain silent. His confusion and rage at being played for a pawn is entirely persuasive; his effort to piece together clues that could reveal his location is the stuff of white-knuckle tension. Paul curses uncooperative operators and screams in frustration. Every outburst eats up precious oxygen and power from his rapidly fading phone battery. His desperation digs him ever deeper in peril. Reynolds conveys the man's fear, fallibility and rage in a barnstorming performance. It's an impressive one-man show from an actor usually typecast in light comedy.

Cinematographer Eduard Grau, who also shot Tom Ford's ravishing "A Single Man," films the proceedings with sinister elegance. The achievement is all the more remarkable because the camera never leaves Paul's casket. Viewers are effectively in the same spot as the main character for an hour and a half. Not so much as a flashback relieves the claustrophobia. Yet the cameras wiggle around that tiny space with remarkable flexibility, juggling extreme close-ups, hallucinatory long shots, sudden blackouts and various styles of illumination.

What light there is comes from the phone's screen, Paul's Zippo, a grimy flashlight and a couple of glow sticks. Reynolds is effectively the film's lighting designer as he juggles the props, yet the gimmick works. Tension mounts as, one by one, the lights fade. The sound design, blending muffled above-ground battle din with a chorus of voices on Paul's phone, adds another layer of tension. This is a film that can freeze your blood with a human resources director's dry, disembodied recitation of insurance policy language.

"Buried" may be claustrophobic in scale, but its impact is immense.

ccovert@startribune.com • 612-673-7186

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