Box, The (United States, 2009)November 06, 2009
Feelings of déjà vu while watching The Box are understandable (perhaps inevitable), with the movie evoking memories of a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits TV episode. Such similarities are not coincidental; the author of the source material, Richard Matheson, a prolific horror/science fiction scribe during the '50s, '60s, and '70s, wrote for both series. (In fact, "Button, Button" - the inspiration for The Box - was adapted for the 1986 version of The Twilight Zone.) The problem is that, in order to extend the movie to an acceptable length, writer/director Richard Kelly was forced to append unnecessary, contradictory, and confusing material onto Matheson's simple, elegant short story. Although the central parable remains intriguing, there's so much other stuff going on that it threatens to become lost in the noise.
Consider this dilemma: What if you could gain $1 million in cold cash by pushing a button. The only drawback is that someone you don't know will die as a result of your action. Do you do it? And, if you do it, is it because you want the money, don't care about the mysterious victim, or simply don't believe that the button has the ability to kill anyone or provide the promised riches? It's a fascinating idea - something to be mulled over in quiet moments of contemplation or talked about in philosophy classes. Whether it makes for effective drama is another matter. Kelly gets some mileage out of it, but not enough to propel The Box through its entire 116 minute course.
Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are faced with a decision when the ghoulish Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives at their suburban Virginia home early one morning in December 1976. Steward leaves a mysterious box in their custody. It is topped with a button protected by a glass dome. He gives them 24 hours to choose between taking the moral high ground by keeping the dome closed or embracing a financial windfall by pressing the button (and damning the consequences). After a short period of deliberation, a path is selected, but that's where the story begins, not ends. When Steward arrives to begin the next phase of his relationship with the couple, things get ugly. Arthur plays detective and learns that Steward's horrifying facial deformity comes from his having been struck by lightning and that he is working in concert with the CIA. And a surprising number of people in Norma and Arthur's circle of friends and acquaintances are experiencing nosebleeds...
Paradoxically, the more The Box tries to explain, the less credible it becomes. The exposition builds at a dizzying rate, incorporating government conspiracy and alien invasion subplots into the overall structure. The simple moral conundrum remains at the center, but it is surrounded by so much narrative debris that it's easy to lose track of what's really important. Kelly seems desperate to rationalize everything that's going on, and that's a mistake. Acts of God or the Devil are better left as such. The more one tries to explain the Monkey's Paw, the more preposterous it sounds. Kelly isn't content simply to have Steward represent a supernatural power; he wants to posit a plausible explanation, and it doesn't work.
The Box is set in 1976 (close to the date when the original 1970 short story was written), a fact that Kelly emphasizes by having the Lewis' dream house wallpapered with the garish colors and patterns. Attitudes occasionally seem anachronistic- it's hard to believe a high school boy could get away with the rudeness he exhibits in the class taught by Norma. There's a practical reason why Kelly chooses to anchor his movie in this time period - many of the elements wouldn't work in a computer/Internet/cell phone era. The Box demands a "simpler" time but one that is still recognizably modern, and the '70s qualify.
The leads, Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, are effective choices from a likeability standpoint. Both are attractive and earnest and it's hard not to be sympathetic with their characters' financial struggles, especially in light of the current economic climate. Their son, played by a bland Sam Oz Stone, is something of a nonentity. Frank Langella brings a dose of Nixonian seriousness to a role that, as written, could easily be laughable. The actor's gravitas may be The Box's single most important asset. A campy Steward would have doomed the production to the purgatory of self-parody.
Kelly is known for favoring obtuse material. His Donnie Darko was a cult hit, but the follow-up, Southland Tales, was an overambitious disaster. The Box, although arguably more accessible than either of those titles, remains enough off the beaten path that it will alienate those portions of the audience expecting something more straightforward or less narratively dense. Despite its flaws, The Box remains intriguing; however, as its mysteries are solved, the prevailing sense is one of frustration rather than satisfaction. That makes The Box worthy of the dubious label of "an interesting failure."
Box, The (United States, 2009)
Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Sam Oz Stone, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne
Screenplay: Richard Kelly, based on the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson
Cinematography: Steven B. Poster
Music: Win Butler, Regine Chassagne, Owen Pallett
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers