‘Buried’ frightens with primal terror

October at last! It’s my favorite month in the Valley because it’s the one in which summer begins to give up her stubbornness, and my favorite month anywhere because it’s the month of Halloween.

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So if you want a scary movie to start your Autumn revels, you might consider Buried, now in theaters. It scared me, anyway.

The hero is Ryan Reynolds, as an American contractor in Iraq, a truck driver, who wakes up to find himself in a wooden coffin. The movie stays in this terrifyingly dreadful box with him for its entire length. He has a cell phone (with remarkable reception, apparently), and he soon learns that the kidnappers who have interred him are demanding a million dollars ransom.

This was hardship duty for me, the title state being a phobia of mine. For the first 20 heart-pounding minutes or so, I seriously considered leaving the theater. I didn’t, but at one point I found I had to change seats. I had to exercise my liberty to move around. So I doubt that this one will become a beloved favorite of mine, but I must say, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

The director, Rodrigo Cortes, doesn’t allow himself any flashbacks, he doesn’t cut to the people Reynolds talks to on the phone.

The closest he comes to a “cheat” are some cut-away views of the box, bordered by darkness, and one psychic image of Reynolds seemingly at the bottom of a very deep coffin, representing his sense of abandonment.

We also watch a video with Reynolds on his cell phone screen. Other than that, Cortes uses only the shifts in illumination from various sources (cell phone, lighter, etc) ingenious angling, and the sustained, moving performance of Reynolds to keep the film from visual monotony, and he succeeds entirely.

There’s a big scare scene about midpoint, an attempt to compound the horror by adding another classic phobia, that seemed contrived and corny to me.

Apart from that one arguable misstep, Buried strikes me as a triumph. The desire to see this man liberated becomes almost a physical sensation. The script, by Chris Sparling, manages one inventive gambit after another to keep the confined situation dynamic, and the dialogue is accomplished.

The hero’s conversation, near the end, with a representative (voiced by Stephen Tobolowsky) of his employer is a masterstroke of pitch-black comedy.

Buried has a rich, Bernard Herrmann-style musical score by Victor Reyes, and a graphically flamboyant opening title sequence in the style of Saul Bass.

I’m guessing that Cortes meant these in homage to Hitchcock, who loved to challenge himself with proscribed situations like this, as in Rope or Lifeboat.

I would also guess that if Hitchcock could see this movie, he would nod with approval. Maybe even with a pang of envy.

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