At one point in playwright Tom Stoppard’s Tony-winning "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," in which Hamlet’s hapless schoolmates observe looming tragedy (their own) from the sidelines of Shakespeare’s classic play, Rosencrantz ponders the existential implications of life, and death, in a box:

After all, "you’d be helpless, wouldn’t you?" Rosencrantz reasons. "Stuffed in a box like that. I mean, you’d be in there forever."

No, Rosencrantz, not forever. Watching "Buried" just feels that way sometimes.

A tightly structured, but not always tautly executed, study of extreme, utterly understandable claustrophobia, "Buried" serves up a potentially intriguing cinematic exercise masquerading as a chilling nail-biter.

It’s the kind of thing TV’s "Twilight Zone" used to do so well. ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" actually did the same, with Quentin Tarantino directing, a few years back.)

And it would have been great fun, cinematically speaking, to see what Alfred Hitchcock might have made of "Buried," considering how Hitch loved how structural limitations stretched his imagination.

A lot farther than "Buried" director Rodrigo Cortes, that’s for sure.

Set in 2006 Iraq, "Buried" focuses on Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), who’s been working as a trucker for a U.S.-based company. He was delivering humanitarian aid to a community center when insurgents attacked his convoy, nabbed him and confined him, bound and gagged, to a plain wooden box, with only his trusty Zippo lighter for company.

That is, until one of his captors calls him on the cell phone thoughtfully left inside his coffin, setting up a high-stakes duel between devices for MVP (Most Valuable Prop) status as Paul awaits rescue before his oxygen runs out.

Because Paul’s just an average guy, his panicked reactions (courtesy of screenwriter Chris Sparling) never suggest much more than desperation. Except when "Buried" goes into heavy-handed political commentary mode, addressing the U.S. presence in Iraq — and corporate exploitation of hardworking innocents in a war zone.

Faced with one claustrophobic set and one anguished character, director Cortes manages to inject "Buried" with welcome visual variety. He and cinematographer Eduard Grau ("A Single Man") use the movie’s few (and dim) lighting sources to conjure an eerie atmosphere of dread. (Which, alas, is undercut whenever Victor Reyes’ cue-with-every-clue musical score goes into "Psycho"-drive.)

And while "Buried" cranks up the suspense from time to time, Cortes can’t maintain enough momentum to keep us so spellbound we wouldn’t have time to wonder, say, how Indiana Jones might react if he found himself in such a situation.

Paul Conroy’s no Indiana Jones, of course. And that’s partly the point.

Reynolds isn’t the kind of magnetically mesmerizing presence who can single-handedly redeem "Buried’s" inherent limitations, yet his easygoing, Everyguy energy makes it easier for us to identify with Paul as he attempts to endure an unendurable ordeal.

Except for a few wry asides, "Buried" doesn’t give Reynolds much chance to show off his flair for snarky humor — which seems entirely fitting given his role’s tour-de-force proportions.

He hyperventilates, freaks out, rages against the dying of the light. We wonder whether his cell phone battery will conk out before his hanging-by-a-shred survival instincts do — and whether "Buried" can maintain its grip on our collective nerves.

Talk about thinking inside the box.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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