Wednesday, March 23, 2011

BURIED (2010)

This may be a strange thing to say, but thank god for the creation of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Broadcast on ABC from 1998 to 2001 (retitled as the less-ponderous Two Guys and a Girl in the second season) seemingly run-of-the-mill sitcom was never a huge hit, but it was one of those in-offensive, young-white-and-mid-twenties best friends “making their way through the world” comedies that will dominate the airwaves until the cockroaches take over. It was pleasant and occasionally offered up out-loud laughter, but there wasn’t much to set it apart from the likes of Friends, Wings and whathaveyou. Today’s equivalent is likely How I Met Your Mother (which actually shares many of the same incidental traits with Two Guys and a Girl, what with both shows having indecisive architects in the forefront). What it had was a core cast of actors who had great chemistry together, playing people you more or less liked and rooted for, who took chances with their timing and characterization. Most importantly, Two Guys and a Girl introduced us to two hunky superheroes the world knows and loves today: Captain Malcolm Reynolds and our new Green Lantern, aka Nathan Fillion and Ryan Reynolds. At the time, neither of these two guys stood out particularly as “stars”, but their talent was obvious. And they were fun, self-effacing guys on and off screen (at least as far as Entertainment Tonight revealed), easy on the eyes and a big hit with the ladies. But even the biggest, diest-hardest fan of Two Guys and a Girl would have scoffed at the idea that one of these two could sustain an entire movie, all by themselves, for 90 minutes. And if scoffing hadn’t occurred, the smart money may have been on Fillion first, with Reynolds a distant second in the two-man race.

And yet, in 2010, after appealing turns in equally-disposable comedies like Van Wilder, The Proposal and a scene-stealing appearance in Wolverine (as fan-favorite “Merc with the Mouth” Deadpool), where tall, blonde wiseguy Reynolds proved beyond argument that he could hold his own against most competition, and, amazingly, could keep eyes glued to the screen all by himself in Buried.

Written by an under-the-radar screenwriter named Chris Sparling, produced by Peter Safran (a guy with as strange a resume as Bob Clark with such “classics”—but undeniable money-makers—as Scary Movie and Meet the Spartans under his belt) and directed by an award-winning but relatively unknown Spaniard named Rodrigo Cortés, Buried premiered in September, 2010, and starred Reynolds and Reynolds alone. His costars include various voices on a cell-phone, a pair of glow sticks and a very confused little snake, but for 90 minutes, it’s just “Berg” from Two Guys and a Girl. And not only does he hold our attention, he creates such sympathy for his character that we too, as the single organism known as “the audience”, are trapped right there with him, in a very small box, buried under the ground in very hostile land.

Reynolds plays a truck driver named Paul Conroy who takes a job with an American convoy to haul food and goods across Iraq. His employers are not affiliated with the military on either side and Paul has no particular political point of view. He just wants to earn enough money to provide a better life for his family. It may not have been the best of ideas, to state the obvious, but as he points out in an early phone conversation, with the economy “back home”, choices were few and hard to come by. But Paul’s convoy has been attacked and he wakes up in pitch black. After some panicked searching (which we hear but cannot view—no cheating on the part of Cortés), Paul finds his lighter and discovers himself bound hand and foot inside a crate that is only slightly larger than his own body. Sand trickling through the gaps in the slats tell him that he’s been buried alive. Then a cell phone rings. It’s not his—it’s been given to him by his abductors, who tell him that he’s being held for ransom. He argues; he’s not a soldier, he’s never done harm to the people who are holding him, but it doesn’t matter. He’s American. He’s being held responsible.

The first third of the film is intense panic as Paul dials frantically for anyone who can help him. His wife’s cell phone is off. His employers insist he call the “safety number” he was given, despite the fact that his abductors had taken it from his wallet. Finally, he reaches Dan Brenner with the State Department. The government won’t negotiate with terrorists, will not pay the demanded $5 million dollar ransom for him, cannot trace his cell phone but will still do “everything they can” to help him. Brenner insists that they’ve rescued people in similar situations, include a recent “win” with a man named Mark White. There is still hope—thin though it may be, but aside from the few things buried with him, hope is literally all that Paul has in that box with him.

The situation, the claustrophobia, the darkness, the brief fight with the snake that finds its way in through a hole in the crate—these are the things that make Buried a thriller. But it’s the underlying anger, frustration and general indifference towards Paul’s plight that makes Buried a horror film. If there’s ever been an argument in favor of the relentless masked killer, the gory thrill ride, it’s Buried. This movie’s story is a nightmare from start to finish, no matter what side of the political spectrum you take. Some viewers may argue that it’s liberal hysteria; others may find the unseen conservatives to blame. Regardless, at its core, we have Paul Conroy, average citizen, our everyman, caught between the stubborn ideology of multiple sides who created an unwinnable situation. If you’ve ever felt disgust or helplessness at the state of the world, this movie embodies it all.

In the classic scenario of “the ultimate bad day”, every call to or from the outside world worsens Paul’s situation. To avoid paying insurance money to his soon-to-be-widow, a bureaucrat from his company terminates his contract because of a loophole based on an untrue breach of protocol. Our country’s stance on non-negotiation reduces Paul Conroy to a statistic, a pawn in the game. To his abductors, the natives of the country who never asked for our “help”, use Paul as a scapegoat for the horror visited upon their people. There is no side of the nonsense left unargued and even all of the faceless voices are humanized, from the human resources guy (the familiar and officious Stephen Tobowlosky), to Robert Paterson’s Brenner, they’re all just people caught up in Paul’s horrifying day, told to do jobs they don’t want to do, forced to carry out orders with the worst possible consequences. In the case of the H.R. guy, he has to distance himself from Paul, has to make him the bad guy in the situation. Brenner wants to keep Paul’s hopes alive, but doesn’t wish to lie to him either. To others on the stateside end of Paul’s lifeline, all they can do to keep their sanity is to take umbrage with his panic-stricken tone.

In a conversation I had with one viewer, I was told that there could be no sympathy for Paul because he’s so unlikable. “All he does is yell at people—I wouldn’t want to help him.” And that’s the audience’s emotional dissonance. Paul’s situation doesn’t give him permission to “be an asshole”, as my conversationalist put it. And there’s the desensitization of our modern day society. A man buried alive is still expected to keep a polite tongue in his head. His panic isn’t our problem. A quick check of Netflix and IMDb posts backs up this theory. Paul isn’t “always” likable. Of course not—as portrayed by Reynolds, Paul Conroy is a fucking human being. Human beings aren’t always fucking likable.

But because he yells, loses his temper with a disinterested or bored secretary, some audience members can keep themselves out of that buried box, that very realistic hell. For horror fans, there’s no comic relief or cheesy effect providing a trap door out of the horror. This is something real that could happen to any of us, because of things we don’t understand, created by people who don’t particularly care about “the little guy”. Simplistic an attitude that may be, its what most political imbroglios boil down to: the bottom line of money, power and jingoistic ego.

Buried is a very angry movie. It’s not pro- or anti-Iraq or the United States. It’s not misanthropic—it’s holding us all responsible. If you want to make the argument that it’s one-sided because we have a white American as our protagonist, then you’re missing the point. We are human beings—we shouldn’t do these things to each other. We shouldn’t allow the innocent to suffer for political, economic or—let’s be honest—genital-centric means. All war is a pissing contest, and the wrong people are always caught in the splash zone. While it is disingenuous to think that a movie like Buried, with it’s hunky superhero front and center, could possibly solve any of the world’s problems, at least Cortés and Sparling decided that they had something to say that did not deserve to go unsaid. If you don’t feel for our fictional Paul Conroy on any level, for whatever reason, then you are somehow responsible for the deadening of human emotion. If for one moment you don’t feel like you’re inside that box, there’s a good chance you’re not part of society. 

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