***Spoiler alert: I reveal the end of The Vanishing in this post. If you haven’t seen that film and want to experience the sucker-punch that is the film’s penultimate scene, I suggest you watch it before reading this post.***
By now, any self-respecting horror fan should have seen a trailer for Buried, the Lionsgate distributed film starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Spaniard Rodrigo Cortes. In case you haven’t, here it is:
Reynolds plays the film’s only onscreen character: Paul Conroy, a truck-driver contracted to work in Iraq circa 2006 and buried alive with only a Zippo and a fully-charged cell-phone. Unable to remember how he arrived in this predicament, the film uses the cell phone device to allow Conroy to come into contact with his captors, family, emergency dispatch, US officials, and his employers, gradually revealing the course of events that led up to the burial through these conversations. It’s a brilliant, minimalist concept, and by early accounts from its premier at Sundance, a successful exercise in suspense.
As Variety reviewer Rob Nelson points out, Buried also clearly draws from the excellent 1988 Dutch film Spoorloos (trans. as The Vanishing). That film involves the disappearance of a Dutch woman named Saskia and the efforts of her boyfriend, Rex, to discover what happened to her. After tracking down the killer–the seemingly normal family man Raymond–Rex agrees to succumb to the same fate as Saskia. We the viewers find out what that is in the penultimate scene. Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments offers a good summation:
The film proved so affective that Hollywood came a-calling for a remake. Despite both films sharing the same director, George Sluizer, the Hollywood version essentially neutralized the original, tacking on a rosy ending in which the protagonist’s girlfriend comes to the rescue. Roger Ebert articulates my feelings pretty well below (though I hate that he uses “slasher” as some kind of insult):
Still, surviving burial doesn’t necessarily make for a cliched plot point. Kill Bill, Volume 2 makes good use of the “buried alive” narrative conflict when the Bride lands herself in a coffin. Rather than limit the action of the scene to the coffin, writer/director Quentin Tarantino uses the Bride’s predicament as a jumping off point for a flashback depicting the Bride’s kung fu training by the legendary Pai Mei. Here’s what happens once the film flashes back to the buried Bride:
Because the Bride’s escape follows a flashback to training in which she gains the skills that enable her to escape, Kill Bill cleverly gives the unbelievable moment credibility within the narrative.
Several signals suggest that Buried will similarly develop its concept, avoiding the pitfalls of a film like The Vanishing remake in favor of a more nuanced approach. For one, the film’s credits suggest that it strictly adheres to the concept; other than Reynolds, cast members are listed as “voices,” suggesting that the film keeps all (or at least most) of the action to the interior of the coffin. The sparse trailer also hints at a confined space for the film’s action. If the filmmakers can pull it off (as reviewers like Jackson and others say they do) it will be an impressive feet worthy of Sluizer’s admiration.
The film’s geopolitical context also suggests a myriad of possibilities. Because the protagonist works for Iraq War contractors, I expect there to be some fascinating commentary on the new civilian role in nation-building as well as the problematic corporatization of war. One might read the concept itself as a critique of the exploitation of the working-class by both sides of the war on terror: in the end, either side will bury you in a box to further their cause.