“Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it; you drive home in it. You sit in your home staring into a box. It erodes your soul while the box that is your body withers and dies, whereupon it is placed in the ultimate box to slowly decompose.” — Arlington Steward, The Box
The Box begins as a simple what-would-you-do thought experiment. A stranger arrives at your door with a box containing a “button unit”. He explains that you have a choice. You can push the button and receive a tax-free, million-dollar payment — but someone in the world that you don’t know will die as a result. Or, you could send the box back and forget all about the button, no harm done to anyone.
Of course, in the hands of director Richard Kelly, even a simple thought experiment becomes not-so-straightforward. For starters, the box is delivered by Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a serious and well spoken man who is missing half of his face. (How would that affect your decision?) He presents the box to Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz, using a southern accent that seems to make her think hard about every word) and her husband, Arthur (James Marsden) in a 1976 Virginia suburb.
Norma and Arthur spend the remainder of the movie parsing the consequences of their decision, sending them on a particularly Kellyesque journey unraveling a conspiracy that has them contemplating everything from other worlds to the afterlife. As per usual, Kelly hinges parts of this story on information withheld from both his characters and his audience.
In this case, some hints could be gained from a handbook ominously titled the “Human Resource Exploitation Manual”, which was once available for download on the movie’s website but now appears to be nonexistent. (It seems like a sure thing to include the manual as a DVD extra, the way that the similarly fictional “The Philosophy of Time Travel” was included on the DVD for the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, but the bare-bones DVD doesn’t contain that or a commentary track for extra insight.) As the audience, we follow Norma and Arthur through these ominous and textured scenes, sharing in their suspense, picking up bits of information but never quite sure if they mean anything when they’re finally pieced together.
Then again, you can strip away all of the Kelly flourishes — Steward’s creepy “employees” and the sci-fi elements they bring to the movie — and still wind up with a relatable human drama about upward mobility. The box is appealing to Norma and Arthur because they’re both strivers. Arthur especially — he’s applied to become, of all things, an astronaut on a mission to Mars. He makes it clear to his superiors that settling for a life at a mere managerial position is unacceptable to him.
Norma admits to a friend that they live “paycheck to paycheck” trying to maintain their suburban existence. She worries about how to afford the tuition at her son’s private school — while Arthur drives around in a sleek-looking muscle-car.
Embedded in the labyrinthine sci-fi mystery is one central question: What are Norma and Arthur willing to do to advance their lifestyle? That leads to further questions: What are their neighbors willing to do to them for the same thing? Is this a cycle that can eventually be stopped or escaped?
That seems to be the question put forth by Richard Matheson in “Button, Button”, the story that became the inspiration for The Box. On the DVD, Matheson is the only one who really gets to comment on the story. In the special feature, “Richard Matheson: In His Own Words”, he talks about his inspiration for the story and his career in general. (Kelly makes an appearance, but only to talk about the influence Matheson has had on sci-fi nerds.) It’s a pleasant interview, but, as the only special feature, the DVD leaves most of the questions raised by Matheson and Kelly without any clear answers.
Like the “Human Resource Exploitation Manual”, you know they’re out there — but you’re just going to have to be satisfied with what you can piece together yourself.