October 7, 2010

Why do so many young men and women risk their lives to continue the “war effort” and “reconstruction effort” in Iraq? And just how much do the people who sent them there care whether they live or die? These seem to be the questions being asked by writer Chris Sparling and director Rodrigo Cortés in claustrophobic thriller, Buried (2010).

Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is a thirty-four-year-old all-American guy. Working “just a job” as a truck driver for an American company based in Iraq, Paul, like so many others, is only there “for money”; no political agenda in sight. But irregardless of the motivations of the individual, the government, and their companies and corporations, are there for political reasons and as such the soldiers and workers who go to Iraq are often implicated in life-threatening conflict.

The film opens with a black screen and the faint sound of wheezing; a man desperate for air. The tension is palpable as the breathing slowly intensifies until a Zippo lighter is finally lit. Surveying his surroundings in as close to “real-time” as a film that uses multiple camera angles and editing (necessarily creating temporal ellipses, albeit fractional) can, Conroy discovers he is trapped inside an old-style, simplistic wooden coffin, gagged and bound, presumably buried somewhere underground. Following a small anxiety attack Conroy passes out and the screen returns to black. Awoken by a vibrating cell phone, Conroy comes to realise that all hope is not lost and there might just be a way out after all… Calling his loved ones, his employer, US emergency services and the FBI, Conroy is as resourceful as he can be – even if his own hysteria does him a great disservice when he far from calmly tries to communicate to countless unwitting others the true gravity of his situation. Slowly recalling the events which preceded his current surroundings, Conroy deduces he has been kidnapped by insurgents or terrorists, who, unfortunately for him, want “money” in exchange for his life.

Portraying the US government and a whole host of corporations as a large faceless (they are only ever voices heard via Paul’s cell) matrix of bureaucratic red tape who share in common little to no concern for one individual’s mere humanity amidst the air-conditioned confines of their own “just jobs” – which they too presumably do solely for the constantly mentioned motivator of “money”. So ludicrous is their emphasis on logistics and protocol that they continue to ask the type of questions someone who is buried alive (time-sensitive) shouldn’t really be expected to answer; best of all when they respond – notably always free from emotion or empathy – with company lines such as “Sir, I understand your frustration”.

The key to the film comes when Paul first begins to accept the likely inevitably that he is going to die in this wooden box, somewhere in Iraq, alone. Talking to someone from a “Hostage Working Group” Paul confesses, “I just wanna do right by my family. I didn’t know it was going to be like this out here.” to which the response comes “None of us did.” Despite the inference of the slogan “War on Terror”, it seems the reality of the situation was absolutely unanticipated by so many naive young men and women who shipped out – soldiers and workers – only by the time they’ve understood it is of course too late. Conroy is left with nothing but the will to live which is stretched to its very limits by the constant demands of his kidnapper and the lack of support from the people to whom he turned for help.

On the other side of it, the kidnapper (presumably Iraqi insurgent) is also faceless and motivated by “money”. The only difference is that in place of Westernised bureaucracy, he (standing in for “they”), is deliberately cruel and even when Conroy takes instruction and acts against his own (and his government’s) will, he is still punished. The most interesting provocation Cortés highlights here is the Western world’s understanding of the word “terrorist”, as our faceless, nameless (it is worth mentioning that he is the only nameless character in the film) insurgent asks, “Because you are terrified, I am a terrorist?” It is even alluded to that anyone put in the situation of the Iraqi people; hungry – starving, poor and desperate, would probably do the same. Conroy denies this and claims he would never kill anOther even in such a situation but the ethical questioning, despite his answer, remains.

Incredibly well shot, carefully lit and superbly acted, Buried is communicably claustrophobic and palpably tense. The run-time is possibly a little longer than is needed to successfully explicate the film’s central moral project and there are occasional “dramatic events” that the film could even do without as they disrupt the otherwise well-sustained and bleak tone of it all. But these points notwithstanding the film is decent enough and will no doubt play on your mind for some time after the house lights come up and you hurry out for air.

Buried opens in Australian cinemas today – Thursday October 7 2010 – and is distributed through Icon.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.


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