Of all the ways to seek revenge, immurement’s a good way to go, and this notion isn’t a new one. In Ancient Rome, a vestal virgin charged with breaking her vow of celibacy would be sealed in a cave with a small amount of food and water until the goddess Vesta to rescue her. Predictably, Vesta was hardly punctual, and the virgin was ultimately left for dead, her reputation marred and relegated as a symbol of the consequences of transgression. Similarly, Italy had used this method to punish murderers in a public-forum execution, creating a spectacle of the death and offering a public warning, much like the guillotine, just more painstaking for the victim.
Aside from the spectacle, immurement as a method of execution is most powerful in its effects and ultimate symbolism, causing claustrophobia and forcing the victim to ponder whether each breath will be the last. Additionally, the enveloping darkness causes sensory deprivation, disallowing one from gaining his or her bearings while also making time inaccessible. Without the knowledge of time, our body becomes unsure of how it should function, whether it should be sleeping, eating, panicking, etc.
Moreover, burying someone alive creates the symbol of subservience. The will of the deceased succumbs to the complete control of the aggressor, and the person is rendered meaningless. Traditionally, the victim is also further mocked by the presence of false hope, often left by the torturer in the form of bread or water, forcing the body to prolong its existence by succumbing to instinct in the face of futility.
These effects and symbolism are also prevalent in a more up-to-date look at immurement in Buried, a film that is more watchable for its attempt rather than its content.
Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is a contractor in Iraq whose truck is blown off the road by an IED. When he wakes up, he finds himself trapped in a coffin, buried underground. The premise here is rather intriguing, and the mystery of how the director Rodrigo Cortes will fashion a believable, entertaining tale for 90 minutes through what is virtually a one-man show is doubly so. However, Buried would have been much better – and possibly more powerful – if it didn’t try to fill all 90 minutes, and instead was a shorter feature, say 50 minutes or an hour.
Buried begins on a dark screen with muffled coughing and the tinny sound Zippo lighter being lit, giving the audience just enough light to glimpse the fear and confusion on the face of a cramped Conroy. This opening scene would warrant catching this film in the theater if only for the feeling of being immured with the victim; however, shortly after, the film goes a bit off track when we learn why he’s there, and the recently oft-used trope examining the difference between “terrorist” and “savior” comes into play.
Addressing his kidnapper via the cell phone (false hope) left in his coffin, Conroy pleads “I’m just a contractor. Not a soldier,” trying desperately to convince the voice on the other end that he is not worth ransoming. However the voice replies, “You’re an American. You’re a soldier,” showing little differentiation between the two.
Their conversations continue like this, and ultimately Conroy attempts to defend himself again by asserting, “I’m here because it’s a job…to make money […] I’m here to rebuild,” offering a slight comment on the recent recession and how financial gain can outweigh moral judgment, but this also exposes Conroy’s political ignorance when the voice points out Conroy is there “to rebuild what you destroyed,” equating Conroy to the aggressors, or at least pointing out that those who acquiesce with aggression are on the side of the aggressors and are just as culpable for their actions.
Though it’s a bit overdone in the last decade, this is a fine theme to tackle, but then Buried gets in its own way, creating conflicts that become less about commentary and more about making the audience jump. A snake crawls in and through Conroy’s pants, and then there’s the spilled water canteen, the fire in the coffin (don’t ask), the depleting phone battery, the murder of his co-worker via video, his last phone call to his mother who has dementia insisting that she and “dad have been playing gin rummy,” even though Conroy reminds her that “Dad probably isn’t there with you.” And finally, there is his conversation with his employer CRT, which begs the question of whether or not the American contracting company for whom Conroy was working is the ultimate culprit in his kidnapping.
Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with making America’s government, agencies, or contracting companies the bad guys on film; however, the nefarious tactics undertaken by the company toward the end of the film just to save a bit of insurance money is rather implausible. The amount of money that would be paid out to Conroy’s family would be change in an executive’s pocket. Cynicism is fine, and often profound, but Buried uses cynicism as filler instead of focusing on the character’s situation, something that Danny Boyle did rather well in the one-man-trapped premise of 127 Hours.
In the end, Buried doesn’t stray far from the content of “The Cask of Amontillado” as it looks at manipulation, subterfuge, false hope, and deception, even offering an ending that illustrates utter subservience, but the mounds of non-sequitur filler that the film employs should have snuffed out Conroy well before the credits rolled.