The flickering flame from a dying cigarette lighter illuminates the darkness and agonizing terror begins. Buried provides a solid answer to the query: “Can stud muffin Ryan Reynolds carry a 90-minute movie all by himself?” This harrowing nail-biter about a man buried alive is one of the most terrifying movies ever made, and he’s the only person on the screen. Who knew he could be so riveting?
Nothing this underrated actor has previously done measures up to the emotional diversity, focus and self-control required of him in a one-man exercise in underground suspense that Alfred Hitchcock would envy. He plays a civilian American truck driver delivering supplies in Iraq whose convoy is hijacked by insurgents.
When he wakes up, he’s trapped in a wooden coffin six feet below the ground, covered with sweat and dirt, equipped only with a Zippo and a cell phone with a weak signal. He can’t go anywhere. He can barely move. For the entirety of the movie, neither can we. For the duration, frustration morphs into paralyzing primal fear as he tries to reach his wife in Michigan with batteries running low, the darkness interrupted by voices of various telephone operators, hostage negotiators and terrorist captors demanding ransom money from the U.S. Embassy with a 90-minute deadline before they leave him to die. Never has the phone company’s annoying recorded message “We are sorry—your number cannot be completed as dialed” sounded so maddening. A tiny flask of water, a few oxygen pills, and a wonky flashlight help ward off despair and insanity, but then—brace yourself!—it gets worse.
It’s amazing how much action can be squeezed into no more than eight feet of playing space lit only by an intermittent glow. But Reynolds is capable of an awesome spectrum of facial mood shifts, and he uses them all with skill, enhanced by Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés’ sundry array of light sources and an array of diverse camera angles by cinematographer Eduard Grau (who also shot Tom Ford’s A Single Man) that add visual tension to the film’s otherwise stationary set-up. Reynolds disappears into the role with ferocious strength, almost every shot in a detailed close-up. The military politics and corporate cruelty in Chris Sparling’s screenplay border on inhuman incredulity, but for an actor, the star is beyond reproach. Reynolds could not find a more challenging or physically demanding role if he was playing Hamlet.
While he struggles to free himself from a nightmarish prison—and you wait to see if he survives—the effect is genuinely creepy, but do not even think of seeing Buried if you suffer from claustrophobia.