THE BOX (BLU-RAY)
Starring James Marsden, Cameron Diaz and Frank Langella
Directed by Richard Kelly
Written by Richard Kelly, based upon the Richard Matheson story “Button, Button”
Warner Home Video
Frank Langella as Arlington Steward
Someday Richard Kelly will make a great film. His first movie, Donnie Darko, became a cult hit (and one of our faves) based on its loopy story, unique ideas and a charismatic performance from a young Jake Gyllenhaal, despite its serious plot holes, while his follow-up, Southland Tales, is just a mess. Similarly, Kelly’s latest film, The Box, benefits from some great visuals and strong performances but remains flawed and just out of reach of our comprehension… enough to frustrate audiences as well as drive the determined to multiple viewings.
The Box is inspired by genre vet Richard Matheson’s intriguing story “Button, Button.” The set-up is simple: a young, financially stressed couple, Norma Lewis (Diaz) and her husband Arthur (Marsden), are presented with a box with a single button on it by the horribly disfigured Arlington Steward (Langella). Steward’s proposition is simple: press the button and receive a million dollars, but if they do, someone they don’t know will die. It’s no spoiler to say that Norma presses the button and a series of odd things start to happen, prefacing a tragedy instigated by that single bad decision by good people.
Cameron Diaz as Norma Lewis
Kelly’s film benefits from both his fetishistic attention to detail (The Box is set in 1976 and looks it) and his decision to base Norma and Arthur on his parents (the featurette ‘The Box: Grounded In Reality’ includes touching interviews with Kelly’s parents) which makes Diaz and Marsden’s performances that much more resonant. The story he has teased out of Matheson’s original story (which involves water coffins, alien intelligences and a vast conspiracy), combined with details taken from his own life and that of his parents, proves both fascinating and frustrating: fascinating because the audience is always trying to figure out just what is going on and frustrating because we never do.
I saw The Box in a theatre last fall and, like the rest of my fellow moviegoers, I left feeling simultaneously confused, engaged and ultimately disappointed. The ending especially felt like an emotional betrayal based on what had gone before. (I won’t spoil it but will say that the awful fate of our protagonists did not feel true.) I was also unable to connect all the dots of plot, which left me feeling like I had missed something – a common feeling when watching Kelly’s films.
Arthur meets the water coffin
Thank God, then, for the director’s commentary track. Kelly answers many of the questions I had about his film while teasingly leaving others unanswered or only hinted at. Kelly’s strength as a writer and director is to leave just enough mystery in his films to make them enigmatic artworks worth revisiting; his weakness is in letting his ideas overwhelm his commonsense as to how much myster an audience is willing to take on.
The Box didn’t make a lot of money in theatres, meaning it’s unlikely Kelly will be able to make another big studio project anytime soon. But if he can temper his wild imagination with a loyalty to plotting, there’s little doubt that Richard Kelly will become a great director and, thus, make a great film. Until then, watch The Box, scratch your head, and don’t feel bad about not being able to exactly figure out what the hell is going on.
Rating: 3.5/5 (or 3/5 without the commentary)