STARRING: Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella,
2009, 115 Minutes, Directed by:
it was fun while it lasted. The wonderfully wacky world of writer/director
Richard Kelly drives off a cliff with The Box, the filmmaker’s
self-proclaimed shot at a broadly commercial film . . .
Interestingly enough, there’s
nothing at all commercial about the enigmatic picture, which meticulously traces
over the same lines of surrealism, spirituality, and otherworldly interference
that marked Kelly’s previous features, the cult smash
Donnie Darko and the underrated brain-smasher,
I would never doubt Kelly’s
conviction and personal belief that he’s challenging himself, but The Box
doesn’t lie. It’s the same old set of eye-crossing ambiguities, only this time
there’s something of a budget and a smudged pass at cinematic normalcy.
In Virginia circa 1976, Arthur
(James Marsden) and Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) are under pressure to keep up
with their bills, with Arthur failing to secure a desired astronaut position at
NASA. Into their life comes Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a disfigured man
who arrives with a box and careful instructions. Inside the box is a red button
and, if pressed, a stranger will die, with one million dollars left to the
couple as a reward. Leave the button be and Steward takes the box away, never to
be heard from again. Weighing their options, Arthur attempts to investigate
Steward, only to find the spooky dealmaker’s associates watching him from
everywhere. Norma also digs for answers, finding Steward’s origins might not be
as plainly malicious as previously thought.
"Operatic nose bleeds and liquid doorways to the afterlife!"
I respect Kelly as an
intelligent fellow who could probably solve a Rubik’s Cube in four moves. His
intellect and insatiable itch for the unknown made
Darko and Southland into distinctive treasures, but his imagination
shows a considerable reduction of tread while navigating the winding road of
The Box. Adapting the Richard Matheson short story Button, Button for the
big screen (after a previous stop on an episode of
The Twilight Zone), Kelly allows the
source material a chance to only eat up a fraction of the screenplay. This is a
crying shame, as Matheson’s contributions are the only convincing suspense
acrobatics of the picture.
A sci-fi morality tale, The
Box presents an assertive “would you?” dilemma into the minds of the
audience. Knowing someone would perish, be it baby or bum, would you take the
fat cash and slap the red button? Or would the guilt, the sheer unknown elements
of the situation, be enough to ruin your life, leaving refusal the only choice?
Box sincerely addresses
these questions, and Kelly understands how to squeeze the Lewis pickle for the
optimum amount of dread. Shot with an impressive HD-powered ‘70’s glaze and
captured with convincing special effects, Kelly opens The Box with
stupendous promise. It’s a clean machine of suspense and ethical debate,
assertively displaying hesitant heroes, a ghoulish villain, and a devious offer
perfectly arranged to feed post-screening debates for years to come.
then Kelly begins sprinkling nonsense over the whole magnificent effort . . .
Once Arthur and Norma make
their choice, there’s nowhere for The Box to go. Kelly, understanding the
limitations of the short story adaptation challenge, pulls a bootlegger’s turn
with his script, moving away from tentative reality to pure sci-fi. We’re
talking operatic nose bleeds, liquid doorways to the afterlife (a Kelly staple),
and a grandiose threat from unspecified origins. Kelly looks to the skies to
embellish Box past the raw materials.
While there’s a fascinating
pull in the early going, hope is drained the longer Kelly stretches the mystery.
At nearly two hours, the feature runs completely out of steam by the conclusion,
making horrific dilemmas of life and death feel like amateurish stalling. Box
bites off way more than it can possibly chew, and the flavor is overwhelmingly
It’s difficult to label The
Box as simply incomprehensible. The worst offense of the film is the manner
in which it pushes the viewer away, unable to clarify itself to a degree where
it feels more like a puzzle and less like a diary reading. The feature willingly
runs off the rails, and normally that sort of fearless sense of adventure is
welcome. Heck, it’s benefited Kelly on two previous occasions, but The Box
is no party. Perhaps its secrets are not effortlessly interpreted, but they’re
Somebody get Richard Kelly a
Katherine Heigl romantic comedy ASAP, or else we might have yet another talented
filmmaker unable to wiggle free from his own pretension.