Should've Left 'The Box' Locked Up

Directed by: Richard Kelly, Runtime: 116 minutes
Grade: C-

There's a bridge that a new director has to cross after creating a great film from their freshman attempt, one that'll cement their place as a strong filmmaker and not just a one-note wonder. Donnie Darko blipped Richard Kelly's name on the radar because of its challenging conceptualization about time travel, all within a stellar-crafted '80s environment. Many largely anticipated his follow up, Southland Tales, but the results weren't nearly as compelling; his portrait of consumerism and patriotic behavior turned out to be a thick, figurative chore. Now he's brought us The Box, an adaptation of Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button", which attempts to analyze humanity's will when poised with a decision between anonymously killing for money and living out their days in financial turmoil. Though the atmosphere's thick and the '70s aesthetic pleasing, it's another overtly-complex picture from Kelly that's more disjointed than convincing.

We find ourselves dropped in 1976 Richmond, Virginia, awaking at 5:45 with the Lewis family -- NASA employee Arthur (James Marsden), teacher Norma (Cameron Diaz), and their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone -- as they stare down a box delivered at their front door. Opening it reveals a wood encasing with a glass dome, covering a bright red button that can't be accessed without a key. They stew over it, along with a card that claims a Mr. Steward will be arriving that afternoon at 5, and over the ramifications and rewards they'll receive upon pushing the button. What Mr. Steward (Frank Langella), a man whose face has been partially burnt away by way of lightning strike, has to offer is a sort of "indecent" proposal; if they press the button, they'll receive one-million dollars in tax-free cash, but pressing the button will cause somebody, somewhere, to die. With their child's tuition bills, Norma's impending surgery, and Arthur's waning position at NASA in mind, their choice is difficult.

Director Kelly certainly knows how to build a mood, but his character portrayals haven't developed well over the years. The Box is no exception; with a hazy visual look and strategic blasts of '70s flare, he's build a classy artistic blend that both conveys the time period and remains stylish to modern standards. It's a backdrop, however, to a slate of clunky character introductions and stilted drama, which isn't something that this brainy mystery needs at its launch. When Norma, stiffly played with a thick accent by Diaz, readily reveals her deformed foot to her entire class at the demands of a brooding student with an evil grin, it's pretty clear that realism's being tossed aside for the benefit of rushed storytelling. Similar wooden sequences occur, including Arthur's explanation of Norma's deformity, that do a lot more telling than showing. The script covers a lot of ground in a very short time period, and the result is swift, crowded character exposition that sloppily cranks us forward to the meat of the matter.

That's a byproduct of watching one of Kelly's creations, though, because his characters are mostly pawns moving around a compelling science-fiction brainstorm. And, indeed, The Box has an intriguing premise under its simple beginning, boiling around whether Arthur and Norma will push the button or not, and the moral repercussions behind their decision. Thus starts our trip down the rabbit hole -- growing labyrinthine as the mystery behind Mr. Arnold intensifies and the metaphysics that Kelly adores take hold -- and forward into brain-numbing concentration. Here's the problem: just like Southland Tales, Kelly doesn't know how to streamline the spout of dense imagery pouring from his brain, which make the building blocks in the mystery meaningful yet unpleasantly chaotic. He tosses in a wide berth of meditation on Mr. Arnold's pervasive existence, why he's asking people to push the button, and the fabric of humanity's greed, but it's so malformed and slipshod that it weakens its already muddy meaningfulness.

The Box fills its morality bookends with an endless twinge of science-fiction pretense, complete with half-baked ideas about mind control and other-worldly influence. Arthur powers a cat and mouse detective chase, with a surprisingly decent turn from James Marsden, which leads to more and more revelations about how deep -- and dangerous -- this button-pushing experiment goes. As with Kelly's other works, things are left to interpretation as to their meaning; as we're peering through a slew of interconnecting photographs, resource manuals and listening in on phone conversations, all while watching lots of people get bloody noses, the picture turns into a thunderstorm of activity that I would've really preferred if it had passed over. That's not a sleight on Kelly's concepts, which are very clever, but more on the erratic, cyclical way in which the film's activity uncontrollably bubbles around them.

With ethical compasses spiraling wildly throughout its nearly two-hour drudge through allegory, and with more of the watery, theoretical CG-hoopla that empowers Donnie Darko's theorems, The Box arrives as a second moral dilemma in the 11th hour -- and the resolution to the whole she-bang, though it makes relative sense, troubles by being tediously questionable within its backed-in-a-corner frustration. With brains completely shut off and eyes purely watching for the mysteries to unfold, it's not a bad trick, but looking deep into Arthur and Norma's decisions and the structure of it all will cause a massive, quaking headache. It begs the question: was all that gear-churning in our minds really worth it? Ultimately, the answer's no, essentially bringing us to the conjecture that we wish Arthur and Norma would've just made the opposite decision at the start. For their sakes, and ours.


Anonymous said...

Having to watch this movie more than once would be like - eternal damnation. Nice review though.

Thomas Spurlin said...

Second time through was actually a better experience, mostly because you know what you need to focus on while weeding through its many complexities.

Anonymous said...

It seems like there is a point where the audience’s trust is betrayed and it’s clear that trying to think along with the film is not going to pay off. I’m not sure precisely where this is (maybe during the scene with the waiter or the following one with the babysitter), but after that, the only consolation is the knowledge that it all has to end eventually (although two hours wind up seeming pretty long). It's more disappointing than the average bad film because there is a desire to see it all work and go somewhere interesting, either on the level of individual scenes or as a whole.

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