It’s about time Richard Kelly got some respect with a big studio release; we all know Donnie Darko got toyed with enough and Southland Tales got shafted (which deserved depending on how you see the matter). The Box stays close to the Kelly formula of equal parts confusion, oddness, atmosphere and puzzlement. Instead of Frank the Bunny, we get a burn-faced Frank Langella making promises of impending doom and incomprehensible pseudo-science, this time taking place in the snowy suburbia of Christmas time 1976 in Virginia. Based on an old episode of The Twilight Zone (80s version, not the classic 60s), The Box, is bound to divide along lines of interest and annoyance in what the viewer sees on screen.
The tile of the film comes from a perfectly innocuous package that arrives on the doorstep of Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz). Inside the box is a wood mounted button covered by a locked glass dome and a note that says Mr. Steward will be by at 5 pm to explain what the deal is. The deal is you press the button and collect a cool million, tax free. Of course, pushing the button will kill some random person on the Earth somewhere, but you don’t know them. Or you can always not push the button, not get a million dollars and forget the whole thing as the deal goes to someone else to ponder. Either way, you’ve got the day to decide.
Like a lot of Twilight Zone segments, the central question is framed like university ethics class: A million dollars is a lot of money you can do a lot with, but can you live with the moral and ethical consequences of someone being killed, no matter how much you don’t know them? Someone once asked what harm can come from pushing a button, and this one looks like you push it and all it says is “That was easy,” as you order some fine products from Staples. The Box, naturally, takes things a little more seriously. The Lewis’ decision to press the button is only the beginning of the story, leading through themes of 70s paranoia, alien possession, the Butterfly Effect, the nature of humanity and thoughts of higher plains of existence. If you know what’s going on in the end you’re either smarter, or crazier, than I.
But then again, try and explain to me what’s going on in Donnie Darko after only one viewing. Shoot, I’m actually not sure if I can after the numerous times I’ve seen it. The film is intriguing though, and I did find myself enjoying the Rubik’s Cube of trying to line up the colours in my head. Whatever his real motivations or purposes are, Langella’s Arlington Steward is an interesting character and is played with actor’s well pronounced poise and dedication. Similarly, I though Marsden and Diaz played things believably, even if Diaz’s put-upon Southern accent occasionally grated on the nerves. It wasn’t quite nails on a chalkboard bad, but what the point of that was in the first place, I don’t know. Despite that though, there are some fine performances, and you almost believe that they might know what’s actually going on.
Frankly, I can understand the reasons why The Box doesn’t seem to have many fans, for it can be infuriating for what it doesn’t reveal, for what it infers, or what it simply ignores and leaves for you to try and figure out. Then again, a lot of excitable debates take place to this day about the merits of Donnie Darko, and if you ever need to ask yourself “Am I too dumb to get this” just go to IMDB to see the FAQ created for the movie. But back to The Box, which I did find rather interesting and diverting in its own way although I don’t think it stays with you the way Darko does. But it’s not as disposable as I found Southland Tales to be, and it is, by far, the filmmaker’s most refined and stylish effort yet. You may love it, you may not. Either way, it’ll be your call.