Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Sam Oz Stone, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne
US theatrical: 6 Nov 2009 (General release)
UK theatrical: 4 Dec 2009 (General release)
The Box was supposed to be simple. Following the winding, sometimes incomprehensible Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, Richard Kelly has done what studios expect of even the most original directors: he has made a star-driven, wide-release thriller adapted from a preexisting source. That source is Richard Matheson’s short story, “Button, Button” (also the inspiration for an episode of the ‘80s revival of The Twilight Zone), which provides speculative streamlining: a financially challenged couple is visited by a mysterious stranger bearing a device with a button. If they press it, someone they don’t know will die, and they will receive a payment of one million dollars.
In this version, set in 1976 Virginia, the couple is Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden), with a preteen son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone). All three actors benefit from the film’s slow-building scene-setting, which creates empathy for this imperfect but loving family. But even with the film moving at this creepy pace, the button-pushing dilemma isn’t really a feature-length one. Not to worry: Kelly has apparently never seen a story that he can’t expand into a sprawling science fiction nightmare. The Box feigns straightforwardness for half an hour or so, but Kelly only uses the set-up as the firm handle from which he can fly off.
Of course someone pushes the button. And of course the Lewis family doesn’t take their tax-free, guilt-free million and head straight for prosperity. Arthur, who works for NASA and whose father-in-law (Kelly regular Holmes Osborne) is a cop, stumbles through an investigation of man who brings the box, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Norma starts to receive messages and phone calls, all vague warnings. So The Box becomes less a thriller and more a study of morality, paranoia, and the afterlife.
Befitting this inclusivity, Kelly also continues to dabble in extra-textual materials: Donnie Darko‘s time travel mechanics are better explained by a made-up book (with excerpts available on the DVD); Southland Tales had prequel comic-books to fill in character backstories (inadequately, as it turns out); and now The Box‘s official website also offers a document that figures significantly in its conspiracy, the “Human Resource Exploitation Manual.”
Like Kelly’s other forays into information overload, the fringe details don’t shed much light on the story itself (and in some cases, cast shadows or distractions). So the film floats, with his others, in a netherworld between provocative ambiguity and old-fashioned plot holes. Here, though, Norma and Arthur appear more or less as puzzled as the audience, in marked contrast to a film like Southland Tales where, entertainingly unhinged as it was, all involved seemed to be immerse in their satirical-apocalyptic world.
The Box has apocalyptic overtones, too, but approaches them with seriousness, no matter how silly the story might sound on paper. In early scenes Diaz and Marsden speak with a slightly heightened, old-movie earnestness, and the portentous score by members of Arcade Fire sounds like it could fit onto a Hitchcock picture. None of this passes with a wink; the film feels fully invested in its peculiar universe. The slightly soft-focused camera and menacing tracking shots create a dreamlike sensibility without wandering too far into surreal indulgences.
While The Box is Kelly’s most conventional narrative so far, it features images—like a recurring shot of Steward’s elaborate home base—that don’t clarify anything by film’s end. But these frayed edges have their pleasures, too. Even at its most obtuse, The Box resists the conventions of big-studio thrillers where an intriguing set-up gives way to a ludicrous or pedestrian explanation. Kelly’s answers can be ludicrous, but they leave you unsettled, and asking plenty more questions.