The Box (2009)

Directed By: Richard Kelly
Written By: Richard Kelly
Starring: Cameron Diaz
  James Marsden
  Frank Langella
The Box

The year is 1976, and the Lewis family find a package on their porch. It is a box with a big red button on it. If they press it they’ll receive one million dollars, which is awesome. But pressing it will also kill someone in the world – someone they do not know.

The premise for The Box comes from legendary sci-fi writer Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button”. As a piece of short literature, as a concept, it’s a truly interesting and head-scratching idea, but stretched out into a feature length film it simply doesn’t work. It is well acted, occasionally well written, but overall comes across as jumbled and overly confused. Coming from Richard Kelly, this is not as bad as Southland Tales, but nowhere near the quality of Donnie Darko either.

The box is delivered by Arlington Steward (played adeptly by Frank Langella), and the choice is given to down-to-earth southerners Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden). There are only three restrictions regarding the box – Arlington Steward is not permitted to discuss his employer’s identity, Norma and Arthur cannot tell anyone about it and, finally, they have 24 hours to decide.

Arthur pulls it apart and finds it’s just an empty box, so they instantly dismiss it as some kind of joke and leave it alone. However, this would not make a very interesting story, now would it? In one dark day, NASA scientist Arthur is rejected from the Astronaut program and teacher Norma has her funding slashed, with both reasons seeming very dubious – especially since Norma’s boss suddenly develops a nose bleed while telling her the bad news. Looking at bankruptcy and with their dreams in tatters, the box looks even more tempting than before…

24 hours later and their decision is finally made, Steward retrieves his box and he tells them that he will reprogram it and hand it to another family – someone the Lewis family do not know. Panicked into thinking this means the box might choose them as its next victim, Norma and Arthur set about trying to find Steward and his mysterious employer… with dangerous and disastrous consequences.

Richard Kelly succeeds with The Box in some aspects- his depiction of the 70’s is expertly crafted, although on hindsight setting it in this period may work for some purposes, but in context is baffling, especially considering what it suggests in the future. As always with Kelly, it’s never just about one person, or even two. There are plenty of interesting sub-characters, although he never really explores them with the same depth as Donnie Darko or Southland Tales.

Yet, even with the decent acting and wonderfully depicted world, The Box falls apart on a large number of levels. The smaller things irritate, like the intrusive music, which is almost Argento-esque in how extreme it can be, with unnecessary crescendos a-plenty. Langella’s CGI caved-in face is also immensely distracting and occasionally very poorly rendered. A nasty facial scar would have served the same purpose.

From treating them smartly in Donnie Darko, with saint-like patience in Southland Tales, Kelly now treats his audience as cretins, hammering a lack of subtlety into the script and direction – signposting everything so obviously nothing is a surprise, even when the bonkers sci-fi blunders into the film.

And this is the crux of the problem – the science fiction. The second it becomes too sci-fi it loses a lot of its gravitas and power, just becoming tiresome and very confusing in places. It forces you to ask questions you neither care about nor need the answer to. One thing Kelly fails on, which succeeded so admirably in Donnie Darko, is a less-is-more mantra. In Darko it was confusing but intriguing, with no real pseudo-religious undertones. Luckily The Box isn’t so extreme as Southland Tales, which was just a cavalcade of CGI nonsense, but it still has elements of the ridiculous, like the towers of water and the utterly bizarre wind-tunnel Arlington Steward uncomfortably occupies. The occasional moment does scare or intrigue, but mostly it’s oddly pedestrian and you simply give up caring.

As mentioned earlier, the problem with The Box is the dilemma. It forces cliché after cliché out of our protagonist’s mouths “We don’t need money to be happy”, “Everybody dies”, “What if it’s a baby?”, “What if it’s a murderer on death row?” etc… etc… proving the idea is solid, but more of a concept than deserving of the feature length treatment its unduly received.

The Box is a competently made film, miles away from the mad mess that was Southland Tales. Yet once the premise has been set up and the Lewis’ have made their choice, the film begins to unravel into nonsense pseudo-science fiction religious weirdness that simply does not entertain or excite. Well acted, well crafted but severely flawed, this is watchable but unnecessary stuff. Read Matheson’s short story instead – it is infinitely more rewarding.

Rating: ★★★★½☆☆☆☆☆

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