Buried begins where The Vanishing left off: with a man in a coffin, armed only with a cigarette lighter, coming to terms with the slow realisation he may be six feet under, more or less. Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a truck driver working for a private contractor in Iraq, has woken up somewhere beneath the desert; the last thing he can remember is his convoy being attacked by insurgents, and blacking out at the wheel. Aside from his trusty Zippo, the only other tool at Conroy's immediate disposal is the mobile phone that's been buried with him, upon which he's obliged to negotiate his own ransom payment. The usual aggravations associated with these devices are here heightened tenfold: when you're sealed in a wooden box and struggling for oxygen, the rote operator response "I understand your frustration" really isn't good enough.
This is, then, the ne plus ultra of that inventive subgenre of films dealing with the manoeuvrings of a limited number of people in a single room (the better for budgetary concerns): in Buried, it's one person (and a passing snake), and the room is no more than seven feet in length and four foot across. It's no surprise to find the director, Rodrigo Cortés, hails from Spain, the nation that has been making some of the best genre movies in the world these past five years. Cortés knows how to work his location, and the minimal props available to him, cleverly addressing the now-expected mobile-phone issues by ensuring only one corner of the coffin gets reception; there are only three bars of battery power left, and it takes Conroy half the running time to figure out how to change the phone's operating language from Arabic to English.
He's also adept at finding new angles on and within the coffin, changing up the lighting from lighter to glowstick to torch (with red and white light options!), peering through the coffin's cracks, probing it for signs of structural weakness, turning the screen over to darkness when all appears especially hopeless. Somewhere in Buried, there's a reworking of the conventional two-shot dynamic: sometimes the camera is placed at Reynolds' feet, looking up at his head; at others, it's placed at Reynolds' head, looking down at his feet. I'm guessing that, not for the first time in film history, a director and their chosen star got to know one another very well indeed in the course of a production.
You can't really blame them: on paper, Buried offers the most obvious star-making role since 2003's Phone Booth, which positioned Colin Farrell in a kiosk for 90 minutes, selling himself to potential future employers. Reynolds, for his part, has been shuffling around the A-list's fringes for almost a decade now, ticking off stoner comedies (Van Wilder, Harold and Kumar), buff superheroics (Blade: Trinity), idiosyncratic indies (Chaos Theory, The Nines) and slick romcommery (Definitely, Maybe) without ever quite seeming ready to open a movie, and this is his most prominent placing yet. Though Chris Sparling's script provides solid opportunities for the actors on the other end of Conroy's phone - and full marks to Cortés for choosing an Englishman as the voice of calm, reassuring reason - Buried is otherwise all Reynolds, all of the time, playing the hypertensive end of the acting spectrum: despair, frustration, tetchiness in having to deal with his (ex?) mother-in-law, vulnerability in making peace with his own befuddled, institutionalised mother.
Yet I'm pretty sure Paul Conroy isn't going to be as heroic as an audience might demand him to be in the situation: Farrell's bystander could at least fight back with words, but this Everyman's defining characteristic is that he's stuck. (And despite the heat, Reynolds doesn't even get to perform his usual unveiling of torso: he merely has to sweat it out and wait for someone - or something - to release him.) As Buried unfolds, what becomes clear is that the concept's the true star and selling point: the film is no more than a stunt, and a stunt designed to turn the real-world horrors of the Iraq conflict into a palatable, popcorn-shilling entertainment at that. We're meant to get off on Paul Conroy's plight, not recoil from it.
The backing off is left to the direction, instead. Last week's stunt thriller Frozen - made by the type of filmmaker you could well imagine getting stranded up a ski lift with his stoner buds - put us right there alongside its protagonists as they dangled, but Cortés is keen to keep a studied, knowing distance, and while pulling back from the coffin makes it much easier for the audience to return to the surface once the house lights have come up, it results in at least one golden missed opportunity: how much more affecting (and human) would Buried have been if the filmmakers had more closely mirrored Conroy with cinemagoers - themselves shut in the dark with only the light of a screen to guide them - and made him increasingly desperate for a pee?
Buried is in cinemas nationwide.