A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2009,


2009, R, 113 mins.


Norma Lewis: Cameron Diaz / Arthur Lewis: James Marsden / Arlington Steward: Frank Langella

Written and directed by Richard Kelly, based on the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson

Writer/director Richard Kelly makes for an interesting cinematic case study.  

He made, for my money, one of the finest films of the current decade in 2001’s occult, temporal and mind-bending tale of suburban dread in DONNIE DARKO.  On the flip side, he also unequivocally made one of the most wrongheaded and unfathomably wretched films of the decade in the unholy mess that was SOUTHLAND TALES.  After the underground cult phenom that was DARKO – ushering in a young, daring, and twistedly audacious filmmaking sensibility - I think that many were waiting with baited anticipation for SOUTHLAND TALES, only to be slapped in the face by how dreadfully unfocused and incoherent the resulting film was.  It premiered, you may recall, at the 2005 Cannes Film festival – at a three hour length – to some of the lowest scores in its history.  I am wholeheartedly relieved to have been spared by only enduring the film’s later 144 minute cut, still absurdly long, but I am guessing just as teeth gratingly bad as the twenty-minutes-longer version. 

To go from a four star effort to a zero star one is a highly curious oddity, but even after the unmitigated fiasco that was SOUTHLAND TALES I still reserved some hope – albeit fleeting – that Kelly could rebound and show some of the lost passion, absurdist innovation, and intelligence that he ushered in with DARKO.  His newest thriller, THE BOX, perhaps occupies a middle ground between the exhilarating and entertaining impenetrability of DARKO and the shapeless and self-indulgent disaster of SOUTHLAND TALES.  In a recent interview Kelly described his third theatrical effort as one where he hoped “to make a film that is incredibly suspenseful and broadly commercial, while still maintaining my artistic sensibility.”  

In other words, pander to widespread audience sensibilities by not completely alienating them with the mindlessness and indulgent artistic extremes of SOUTHLAND TALES, but don’t lose any of the innovative visual panache that you demonstrated with DARKO.  Okay...got it. 

THE BOX’s premise may seem eerily familiar, as it should: Kelly, who also penned the screenplay, based his film on a 1970 Richard Matheson short story called BUTTON, BUTTON (published in Playboy Magazine) that in turn was made into a 1980’s TWILIGHT ZONE episode (Matheson, you may recall, also wrote  I AM LEGEND, also appropriated into two film versions).  Although Kelly has taken some decided liberties with the story and characters, the underlining premise is just as intoxicating: THE BOX is about nice, decent, and well meaning people that are confronted with a highly lucrative proposition that will unavoidably have calamitous effects on not only them, but on a complete stranger outside of their family unit.  The arc of the story is ingenious for its swift and sinister intrigue: it begs us to ask whether or not fundamentally good-natured people would be willing to break one of the most important Ten Commandments for the sake of a huge financial empowerment.  Even when the film gets bogged down with perhaps too much exposition that tries to explain everything (more on that later), there is not doubt that Kelly takes a nod from Hitchcock in knowing how to take a ominous premise and milk it with enough emotional pathos to totally involve us, even when the story begins to gravitate from one unanticipated and fantastical extreme to the next. 

Set in 1976 Virginia, THE BOX introduces us to Norma and Arthur Lewis (in two thanklessly strong performances by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, who both portray their characters’ ever-growing befuddlement and paranoia with ease) that seem to be living that decade’s version of an ideal suburban family/American dream.  She is a schoolteacher whereas he is an engineer working for the then fledging NASA Research Center, developing special lenses for the Viking Project that takes pictures of the Martian surface.  Much like many modern day yuppies that are partially to blame for our current economic recession, the couple spend more money than they make to maintain their cozy lifestyle and when Norma is dealt with some tough financial news, she realizes that there are headed towards economic ruin.   

Like an angel of mercy...or a devil with duplicitous motives...a strange and disfigured man named Arlington Steward (the cool-as-a-cucumber and faultless Frank Langella) arrives at the doorstep of their humble abode one morning and offers them a proposition.  With the calm spoken inflection and demeanor of a funeral director, the charming and well groomed Steward proposes that he will give the couple one million dollars, tax free (cha-ching!), but there is a cruel and devious catch: he is going to leave them with a simple black box with a big red button on it.  All they have to do is press the button and they win their money and economic salvation.  The problem is that, by pressing the button, someone on earth that they don't know  will die. 

Herein lies the ultimate existentialist and moral dilemma: Would you push the button and why?  Would it be because you need and want the money?  Or, would it be because you are only killing a person that you have no emotional ties to?  Or, would it be because you think that Steward is playing a sick mind game with you and the box itself is just a malicious, mind-screwing prop?  Part of the endlessly compelling allure of the film is that it always, from beginning to end, deals with this conundrum and the characters behave, for the most part, in a manner that most of us would.  Initially they are doubtful, and then their doubts change into incredulity when they realize that the box has no mechanical or electrical components at all.  Later, they become willing participants when they think the box will not actually harm anyone.  They push the button, someone does indeed die, and when Steward shows up at their door again with their monetary prize and a deep and solemn warning to never contact or investigate him, Norma and Arthur begin to emotionally unravel.  Their single moment of weakness – pushing the button for money and, as a result, killing another – begins to reveal itself in consequences to the pair that they – let alone us in the audience – can hardly see coming. 

At its finest, THE BOX hones in on what made Kelly’s rookie film effort so beguiling: He fuses science and speculative fiction, surrealism, a suburban-nightmare landscape, and fever pitched intrigue and thrills.  This is greatly assisted by the endlessly captivating main premise that, even when penetrated by a series of darkly confusing revelations, you still nonetheless want to take the film’s journey into all of its grotesque and deeply peculiar surroundings.  Like the finest sci-fi, Kelly understands that all of the visual extremes and special effects in the world are for naught without focusing in on the themes and character psychology that are incontrovertibly linked to them.  THE BOX does a bravura job of sucking viewers into its abnormal and compelling vortex of ethical compromises.  Even when the film flirts with its downright otherworldly elements, THE BOX is most secure when it deals with the ever-growing disillusionment and obsession of this couple that are trying to make sense out of their decision to use the box.  Watching them unravel before our eyes is arguably the scariest element in the film. 

Where the film falters, however, is that it fails to do what one thing that DONNIE DARKO did so resoundingly well, which is to not go to extremes to explain the intricacies of its story and characters.  I have always wrote on how DARKO was so inspired because of how unnervingly ambiguous it was: a hundred different people will, no doubt, have a hundred possible interpretations, which is what improves its repeat viewing quotient.  THE BOX, on the other hand, gets way to bogged down with explaining the motives of Steward and with revealing the central mystery regarding whom this man is and what his end game is.  The film offers up revelation after revelation at headache-inducing rates and the more it explains the less you’re willing to buy into its depraved mysteries.  Kelly begins to throw in peculiar and macabre elements like they were going out of style, everything from (let me get out my notepad) radio signals from Mars, lightning bolts striking humans, nosebleeds which oddly afflict several people, interdimensional portals, a conspiracy between NASA and the NSA, deeply concerned and deranged babysitters, multiple murders, creepy looking/zombified humans that appear like rejected extras from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and, yes, a mysterious stranger that is missing most of his left jaw and a black box with a red button on it.  THE BOX does not reach the sensory overload and gluttonous extremes of SOUTHLAND TALES, but Kelly could have definitely assisted the premise by leaving much to out imagination. 

However, in a pure exercise of modulating impending dread, THE BOX is never dull, never boring, and certainly never lacking in rowdy ambition.  Kelly summons up some individual moments of quiet, heartfelt, and undeniably haunting introspection at times, which is greatly supported by the film’s wickedly nostalgic, Bernard Hermann-esque throwback score by Canada’s Arcade Fire (their piercing chords help to add a frightening exclamation point to tense moments).  The film is also certainly on assured ground when it comes to the performances: Diaz and Marsden are thoroughly believable as a couple dealing with the increasing, viper-like grasp of their own guilt and confusion (notwithstanding their compulsion for making sense of everything) and Langella is simply brilliant in his understated performance as the icy demeanored, crisp tongued, and finely tailored Steward that hides his deepest secrets with a calm and comforting veneer.  He keeps everything securely afloat, even after we are dealt with a parade of utterly preposterous rationalizations for his Machiavellian – and more than a bit extra-terrestrialian - scheme. 

You may not like the explanation regarding the box in THE BOX, but Kelly’s third effort tantalizes viewers with its resonating moral inquiries, even when he flirts with commercial appeal to the point of abstaining from his purer artistic impulses.  Yet, even after jumpstarting his career with DARKO and then crashing and burning it with the abortively disagreeable SOUTHLAND TALES, THE BOX is a step in the right direction for Kelly, which shows him more securely getting his grove back.  

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