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Buried -- Film Review

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PARK CITY -- Shooting a whole movie about a man buried alive is undeniably an impressive cinematic feat, and director Rodrigo Cortes pulls it off with great skill. However, there is something unsettling about the whole enterprise of basing what is essentially a horror movie on a hostage situation in Iraq. It seems disrespectful of people who actually live and die through this kind of thing. As a genre piece, "Buried" will no doubt draw the curious and usual thrill-seeking crowd at the boxoffice, and Lionsgate acquired it as the first big pickup at Sundance this year, but it is unlikely to be well-received by a more thoughtful audience.

Watching this cinematic sleight of hand is unquestionably an intense, perversely enjoyable cinematic experience. Cortes knows how to build suspense and turn the screws. Kudos well deserved for that. But the same story could have been set anywhere that there is a deranged criminal capable of this kind of activity, but when a film like this is set in Iraq, the game changes. Leaving a screening, an audience member was overheard describing the movie as "the bad guys" burying someone alive. It's the tricks of the trade that make the greatest impression, not the real consequences of the suffering.

In fairness, Cortes and screenwriter Chris Sparling do give the film some political context, but it doesn't carry the weight of this man's gruesome fate or the whole awful situation in that country. It feels like a disservice to people like Daniel Pearl. And a catchy country and western song over the end credits severely undermines the tragedy of the death we've just seen and is a serious misstep by the filmmakers.

Ryan Reynolds, covered in sweat, blood and a few days' growth, departs dramatically from his recent romantic comedy roles. He plays Paul Conroy, a contract truck driver in Iraq whose convoy has been ambushed. The film opens with a black screen and gradually reveals him in a pine box six feet under with a gag around his mouth. How do we see this? He has a Zippo lighter, and later a flashlight, and cinematographer Eduard Grau and Cortes make the most of the natural lighting and close quarters. Seven coffins were created to shoot the film, one allowing the camera to spin around the prone body, and there is technically some beautiful work being done here.

Conroy also has a cell phone, placed in the coffin by his captors. He manages to reach the terrorist holding him, who demands a $5 million ransom for his release. Over 94 minutes, Conroy tries to reach his family, the FBI, the State Department and a hostage crisis specialist. To break the tension, a couple of the calls are played for ill-placed humor, especially one when he blows up at a female neighbor back in Michigan.

One phone conversation that is not played for laughs is his wrenching exchange with the personnel director at the company he works for. Taping the conversation, the director legally absolves the company from responsibility for the kidnapping by firing Conroy. A heartless, despicable move that is probably the kind of behavior going on in and around Iraq, but it still seems a bit extreme.

Conroy is convinced that if he were someone important -- a general, a diplomat -- the search for him would be more intense, and he tells that to the hostage specialist trying find him. And all the while, time is growing short to deliver the ransom. Bombs can be heard above ground and dirt starts sifting slowly into the coffin. It's excruciating to watch, but would be a deeper experience if the film had faced the true sadness of what we're witnessing.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival

Lionsgate Films
Production companies: Versus Entertainment, The Safran Company, Dark Trick Pictures
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Robert Patterson, Jose Luis Garcia-Perez, Stephen Tobolowsky, Samantha Mathis, Warner Loughlin, Ivana Mino, Erik Palladino
Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Writer: Chris Sparling
Producers: Adrian Guerra, Peter Safran
Executive producers: Alejandro Miranda, Rodrigo Cortes
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Maria de la Camara, Gabriel Pare
Music: Victor Reyes
Costumes: Elis de Andres
Editor: Rodrigo Cortes
No rating, 94 minutes