If you’re a fan of writer-director Richard Kelly, or even just mildly interested in his career, the trailers for “The Box” might convince you it’s the kind of movie everyone was waiting for him to make. After two confusing and overindulgent films (cult favorite “Donnie Darko”, and the not-so-cult favorite “Southland Tales”), “The Box” promised to be a smart, simple, taut thriller that wouldn’t take an advanced degree to fully comprehend.
Unfortunately, it’s really just another trademark Richard Kelly film, drowning in oblique excess. Kelly has turned a simple premise into a wild conspiracy yarn involving the Viking Mars mission, sinister public libraries, the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, mysterious nose bleeds, amputated toes, and towering blocks of CGI Jell-O that allow you to briefly pass through the afterlife. It’s almost as hilariously muddled as “Southland Tales”, with the key difference being that “Southland Tales” was trying to be funny.
In “The Box”, James Marsden and Cameron Diaz are a hardworking couple in 1976 Virginia. He’s a NASA engineer working on the Viking Mars mission, and she’s a school teacher who walks with a peculiar limp. One day, a disfigured man comes to the door, played by Frank Langella, who’s been given the Dark Knight Harvey Dent treatment, and has a large chunk of his face missing. We can actually see his teeth through a hole in his cheek, which probably makes eating difficult, but it seems he’s the type who’s moved beyond eating. Langella has come with a box containing a button, as well as an offer for the couple. All they have to do is push the button, and they will receive one million dollars in cash, tax-free. The only catch is that someone, somewhere in the world that they don’t know will die.
If the premise sounds familiar, it’s because it’s based on a Richard Matheson short story (“Button, Button”) that was previously adapted into an episode of the 1980s version of “The Twilight Zone”. The original short story is only about a dozen pages long, and even the “Twilight Zone” episode had to strain the premise to fill up half an hour. “The Box” runs nearly two hours, and by the end it’s traveled so far from the initial idea that it’s completely unrecognizable as Matheson’s short story.
I doubt it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that the couple eventually decides to push the button; there wouldn’t be much of a movie otherwise. Unfortunately, there’s still not much of a movie. After the pushing of the button and the dispensing of the cash, the movie inches along without any coherent direction, with the couple only occasionally getting glimpses of a large and very bizarre conspiracy behind the box.
At a party, Marsden is harassed by an obnoxious waiter who flashes peace signs at him, and then gets a nosebleed. Later, he learns the wife of another NASA engineer was murdered at the exact moment they pushed the button. Also, it turns out their babysitter is living under an assumed name, and she’s staying at a motel where people walk around like zombies and stare at the heavens. This is revealed shortly before she, too, develops a nosebleed. This same group of zombie-like people apparently hang out at the local public library all day. Meanwhile, Langella sits in a NASA wind tunnel, surrounded by strange CGI blobs and constantly shifting world maps.
While the movie features good performances, particularly from Langella, none of it makes any damn sense whatsoever. There are filmmakers who tell disjointed, nonlinear stories because that’s the way their minds work (David Lynch and Terry Gilliam spring to mind). But Kelly appears to be the type of director who could make a great, straightforward thriller, but chooses to be opaque because he gets more attention that way. And I suppose that’s worked out well for him, given all the anticipation surrounding “The Box”. But I have to wonder if this is the movie where his fan base finally figures out he’s a one-trick pony.
Actually, I hesitate to say he’s a one-trick pony, because he may in fact be a no-trick pony. It’s entirely possible “Donnie Darko” only resonated with some because of its atmosphere and soundtrack. And as “The Box” proves, without the cool Tears for Fears songs, there’s really not much to enjoy in Kelly’s films. (Though I won’t knock his choice of Clapton’s “Bell Bottom Blues” for a key scene.)
In the final moments, the couple gets another offer from Langella. The second offer is gut wrenching, to be sure; you’d have to be completely soulless not to feel for the couple in this particular situation. But it feels randomly tacked on for the sole purpose of providing a moving finale, and just comes off as manipulative.
Having said all that, I think this will play relatively well with fans of “Donnie Darko” and “Southland Tales”, because ultimately it’s more of the same. But people who didn’t get those movies sure as heck won’t get this one. There’s no denying that Kelly is capable of getting really great performances out of his leads. I wish that just once he could do it in service of a movie that actually makes sense.
Richard Kelly (director) / Richard Kelly (screenplay), Richard Matheson (short story “Button, Button”)
CAST: Cameron Diaz … Norma Lewis
James Marsden … Arthur Lewis
Frank Langella … Arlington Steward
James Rebhorn … Norm Cahill
Holmes Osborne … Dick Burns
Sam Oz Stone … Walter Lewis