Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Sam Oz Stone, Holmes Osborne
Running Time: 113 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
"Your house is a box which you live in. The car you drove to work is a box, on wheels. When you return home from work you sit in front of a box with moving images. You watch until the mind and soul rots and the box that is your body deteriorates, when finally you are placed into the ultimate box...to rest under the soil and earth."
Was there ever any doubt critics and audiences would hate The Box? Seriously, any doubt at all? Burdened by belonging to a genre that doesn't get any respect, made by a director few want to see work again, and starring a polarizing A-list actress, minds were already made up. This never stood a chance. And if that wasn't enough, how many times have we heard the phrase, "It's like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone" as a supposed insult aimed at high-concept sci-fi or mystery/suspense thrillers? There's no doubt critics' mouths were watering at just the thought of bashing a movie THAT ACTUALLY IS based on an episode of The Twilight Zone.
The nerve of some filmmakers today, using one of the best written shows in television history as a template for their movie. But it turns out writer/director Richard Kelly's third feature can in no way be described as merely an extended version of anything. There are movies being made right now that are genuine garbage, and worse, seem to lack ideas and passion. This film isn't for everyone but it's not fair to say it isn't for anyone or the person who made it doesn't deserve to make movies anymore because it confused you. It confused me too. It also frustrated me. But not just for the sake of doing it. It takes an incredibly creative person to craft a film like this, then actually have the guts to follow through and make it. I'd never imply it's over anyone's head or they "didn't get it," but I would advise anyone who isn't a hardcore fan of sci-fi to stay as far away as possible.
For most, this just won't be their thing, which is fine. And even those who were big fans of either of Richard Kelly's previous masterworks, the cult classic Donnie Darko and/or the unjustly maligned Southland Tales, can still easily find themselves hating this. With a relatively straightforward premise, the presence of A-List talent and one huge box office flop behind him you'd be forgiven for thinking Kelly was ready to concede defeat and start playing by the studios' rules for a change. But really, we should have known better.
Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis are a married couple living above their means but barely making ends meet in Langley, Virginia circa 1976. Arthur works as an engineer at NASA, where he's just been rejected from the astronaut program after failing the psychological exam, while Norma is a high school English teacher whose job might now be in jeopardy due to cuts in the tenure program. A potential cure to their financial ills come in the form of a small wooden box with a red button delivered by a facially disfigured stranger named Arlington Steward (a creepy Frank Langella). His offer is simple: Press the button and they'll be handed a payment of one million dollars... tax free. The catch is that someone somewhere in the world whom THEY DON'T KNOW will die. They have 24 hours to make a decision or it's off the table. Should they choose not to press the button, Steward will just move on and make the offer to someone else THEY DON'T KNOW. I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that Norma presses the button. It's what happens after that where things get blurry.
The film is loosely based on acclaimed science fiction writer Richard Matheson's 1970 short story, "Button, Button," and was later adapted into a 1986 episode of the The Twilight Zone, which the movie's first 30 minutes don't stray very far from. Until the button is pressed we're being set up for a conventional, high concept thriller, but after that the rug is completely pulled out from under us. Interested in doing much more than simply expanding the source material, Kelly presents an existential parable on the human race featuring:
-The Mars Viking Lander program
-Space and time teleportation
-Handy reference manuals (like in Darko)
-Cackling demonic waiters
And that doesn't even begin to cover all the craziness. In what has unsurprisingly caused frustration for audiences, this concept was put in the hands of a director actually interested in exploring the philosophical implications of Steward's offer...on the largest scale possible. Those who have seen the film are probably scratching their heads wondering how I could say anything is explored at all. But it is.
In his recent assessment of the film, Roger Ebert made an interesting point about the "test" Steward seems to be conducting, comparing it to 1961's famous Milgram Experiment in which subjects administered lethal shocks to strangers in another room just simply because they were told to. I remember seeing that gripping video years ago, wondering in the back of my mind the result if that idea was ever fully fleshed out in feature film form. Now it has, but with more far-reaching scope than could have possibly been anticipated. A moral dilemma presented to husband and wife morphs into the ultimate test for humanity's salvation, where our ultimate destroyer is us. In a film packed with overt religious and literary symbolism, an early classroom scene with Norma teaching her class Sartre's 1944 existentialist play "No Exit" hints at this idea and can be seen, at least in purpose, as mirroring Drew Barrymore's lecture on "The Destructors" that took place at the start of Donnie Darko.
With NASA and the Mars landing playing such a huge role in the story you're almost sure the film is going in an extraterrestrial direction but Kelly's too smart for that. Or at least he's too smart to come right out and tell us. And while the scattered clues don't necessarily confirm or deny that suspicion, enough is left open-ended to drive audiences crazy and generate wild theories. We find out a lot about Arlington Steward in terms of his past and motives for the "experiment", but again, much of that is implied and similarly open for interpretation. Key information is given, but not too much, requiring the viewer to fill in the gaps however they choose. Five viewings probably aren't enough, but many will have problems just making it through one.
The Box is an achievement in mood and atmosphere, deliberately paced but never boring. Set in the 1970's (the ugly wallpaper gives it away) it could easily pass itself off as being made in the time it's set, mimicking the look and feel of psychological horror thrillers of that era. Arcade Fire's menacing musical score sounds like a cross between Bernard Hermann's for Psycho and Jonny Greenwood's for There Will Be Blood, only enhancing the terror level, while the party scenes play like something straight out of Kubrick's The Shining. If Southland Tales was Kelly's Dr. Strangelove then this is his 2001: A Space Odyssey. The ideas in the latter heavily influence this, but since neither film is the most accessible, many won't lose sleep pondering the similarities.
For whatever reason Cameron Diaz tends to really rise to the occasion when given insane, trippy material (think Being John Malkovich and Vanilla Sky) to work with and this is the best example yet of that. James Marsden, who's been showing real promise in some thankless supporting roles for the past few years, nails his first leading dramatic one and proves here he's got all the necessary acting chops to stick around for a while. Even more importantly, both share great chemistry and are completely believable as a married couple in crisis.
Frank Langella just might have the most difficult part because he has to rise above what could have just been a hokey gimmick of "death" traveling door-to-door that in the wrong hands could have easily come off as a Final Destination rip-off. But the brilliance of his work is how he subtly conveys that he's carrying out a higher purpose and doesn't necessarily want to do this, but has to. He plays him as twisted and determined, not evil, and you can tell he kind of likes the Lewis'. More than anyone, he doesn't want to see them hit that button but this entire situation is bigger than all of them. He delivers that depressing quote above (so depressing that someone in the film even remarks just how depressing it is), but does it in such a way that you believe no one is more saddened by its possibilities than him.
Since Kelly grew up in Virginia during the 1970's and his dad worked for NASA it's been called the director's most personal project yet. But to categorize it as that requires a deeper understanding of what the word "PERSONAL" probably means to a filmmaker as unique as Richard Kelly-- Uncompromisingly making this movie the way he wants, regardless of the fallout. Recently, the market research firm CinemaScore gave The Box an "F," with its President declaring it a "real stinker," specifically singling out the ending as a major bone of contention (which I figured would have been the only thing audiences liked). Since CinemaScore polls "average moviegoers" it's generally thought of as one of the more accurate measures of a film's quality. Of course, these are the same "average moviegoers" who pushed Transformers: ROTF past 90 billion dollars this summer and just made The Twilight Saga: New Moon one of the highest grossing films of all-time, so you can take that statistic for what it's worth. Its results are especially irrelevant when it comes to a film like this, which was never made to court public acceptance anyway. But by refusing to offer up easy answers and provoking real thought, The Box becomes every bit as chilling as the classic science fiction that inspired it.