In the ground

It’s often said the sign of a good movie is one that can be watched on mute. The acting and directing alone should convey enough conflict that words become superfluous.

Now, what about a film that would fail that test, but would work as a radio play — a film with one character, in one very small location, that relies on sound design as much as visuals? Buried is such a film, and it’s not any worse off because of it.

In Buried, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a civilian contractor working in Iraq, finds himself six feet underground. Iraqi insurgents attacked his convoy, and put him, a cell phone, a Zippo lighter, a flashlight and a few glow sticks into a coffin and interred it somewhere in the desert.

Buried inhabits the polar opposite end of the genre from last year’s Moon. Both tell the story of men trapped alone, trying to understand their strange circumstances while outside forces conspire against them. Where Moon features an astronaut isolated in the vastness of space, Buried instead focuses on Paul’s struggle to survive in a place smaller than a linen closet.

For the entire 95-minute run of the movie, the camera stays with Paul in the coffin. With no dream flashbacks or dream sequences to let Reynolds stretch his legs, director Rodrigo Cortés and writer Chris Sparling are tasked with keeping their thriller tense and entertaining without getting repetitive or absurd.

The sound department deserves ample kudos for bringing the audience into the film. The sound mixers deliver every noise, be it a thump, the hiss of a snake’s tongue, or the sifting of sand through speakers at different sides of the theater.

When the film opens in the dark, with nothing but the sound of Paul breathing, coughing and grunting, the audience shares Paul’s experience. It’s visceral filmmaking, and imbues the film with a tense realism from the start.

Cinematographer Eduard Grau’s lens only enhances that tension. Grau and Cortés keep the camera tight. So tight, in fact, that they often capture just a wedge of Reynolds’ face. When they manage to show his whole body, he’s always framed within the confines of pine and dirt. Both cinematic and claustrophobic at once, it manages to keep a film with one sparse location visually interesting.

Those technical flourishes alone can’t carry a movie. Sparling’s script bares the biggest burden. It doesn’t start as the most original concept. Quentin Tarantino has twice buried his heroes in a coffin, once in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, a second time in an episode of CSI.  The SyFy Channel even had a Web series, Buried Alive, in which five people are kidnapped and find themselves in the titular conundrum.

It seems whoever marketed this film knew this and advertised the movie as a man potentially stuck in the middle of a conspiracy “with 90 minutes of oxygen” — an odd touch, since the volume of oxygen in the coffin and how long it will last are never once estimated in the film.

Few of these examples, though, focus on just one character in one place. True, Paul can communicate with the outside world through the cell phone, but rarely is a film so confined.

To keep things fresh after that initial hook, Sparling piles on ticking clocks. As if waking up in a coffin wasn’t bad enough, Paul deals with an evil corporation, his dying cell phone battery, a faulty flash light, lots of sand, the agency trying to rescue him and a menacing villain who keeps calling asking for a few million “monies” in ransom.

Sparling doles these out one at a time, and then comes back to them, turning the pressure up higher with each new development. There are a few absurd turns.

One scene with Paul waking up with a snake in his shirt, and another in which he has a heartbreaking, yet contrived, phone call with his employer, come to mind. Yet, these can be forgiven. Even they serve a purpose and elevate the physical and psychological stress on Paul to new levels.

Without a star like Reynolds, Sparling’s script might not work so well. For all the thrills, Sparling manages to slip in a good amount of humor. Reynolds has a gift for timing, one that allows him to deliver the funnier lines with a snappy wit.

And although a lesser actor might struggle to balance that humor with the pathos needed, Reynolds navigates the dramatic scenes without breaching melodrama. For all his good looks, the guy’s more than just a pair of chiseled abs.

Not for those afraid of the dark or claustrophobic, Buried is a bit like a roller coaster. It’s fast and it’s fun, and if anyone in the audience tries to close their eyes to escape the thrill, it only gets scarier.