Pushing our buttons: a review of Richard Kelly's The Box

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
--Arthur C. Clarke

1) I found Richard Kelly's The Box annoying in a direct ratio to my admiration of his Donnie Darko (2001). The former cult film combines apocalyptic vision, the delusions of insanity, and a loose story structure that invited multiple interpretations, and yet the film works. It left me wondering--why aren't more movies made in this fashion? The answer may be that some do, but instead of hinting at some semi-plausible cosmic convergence of sci-fi portals, time travel, and the manipulated dead, you can just as easily end up with a pretentious mess.

2) The Box carries multiple allusions to Donnie Darko, but the new one's plot came from a Twilight Zone episode called Button, Button, which makes Kelly's two hour film seem a simple conceit much inflated with portentous metaphysical hoorah. In the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, in 1976, someone leaves a box on the front door step of the Lewis residence. The box contains a "button unit" that gives Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) the opportunity to win a million dollars if they press the button. Unfortunately, someone on earth has to die at the same time they press the button, but that's for their conscience to deal with, and, as the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) assures them, they won't know the person who dies. Arlington stops by a 5 pm that day to talk over the button unit's rules and restrictions with Norma. He has half of his face blown away by a lightning bolt (in case we didn't already get a sense of unease in all of this Faustian deal-making), but Arlington assures Norma that he's not a monster, and besides, the Lewis family could use the money.

3) As one might guess, after Norma impulsively presses the button, things go downhill for the Lewises. They do get the million dollars in a briefcase, but now they guilt consumes them. Their bland son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) wonders what's going on as dad hastens to lock the money in a safe down in the basement, and creepy things begin to occur. During a wedding rehearsal dinner, Arthur accidentally (?) receives a present much like the original box that contains a photo of Arlington Steward. The baby sitter asks Lewis "Is someone pushing your buttons?" before she suffers a nosebleed and passes out in his hotrod Corvette. The more the Lewises try to investigate Arlington, the more he notifies them that he knows exactly what's going on, and pretty soon we've reentered a David Lynchian Darko-enhanced metaphysical dreamworld.

4) Given the family resemblance to Donnie Darko, The Box should be a delight, but several things about it bothered me. I had a hard time getting caught up in the Lewis' contrived plight. Poor Cameron Diaz spends much of her time weeping and looking concerned and guilty with tacky blue eyeliner. Her career has had its highs and lows (Sofia Coppola's mockery of Cameron in Lost in Translation comes to mind), but Diaz deserves more for helping greenlight The Box by her agreement to star in it. Even though she presses the button, Norma seems more tricked than really guilty of anything, and her performance is 90% angst. At one point, just to add insult to injury, Norma's son points out that she's "old, kind of a geezer" in front of his friends at the bus stop.

5) And what of the 1970s period detail? I enjoyed the glimpses of Diff'rent Strokes and the crying Native American PSA on the television, but Richard Kelly admits in an interview that he was too young to remember the 1970s, so the details are not as organically included as the 1980s were in Darko. Much of the time, the decade touches just look tacky.

6) Underneath all of the metaphysical/scientific huggermuggery, all of the spooky people looming out of hotel rooms and library carrels, the No Exit by Sartre references, and the NASA preparations to land a robot on Mars, The Box frequently relies on cheap techniques to get its effects. We have seen the million dollars in a briefcase before (even though all of the hundred dollar bills left me wondering if a real million dollars would fit in a briefcase that small). As the film goes on (oblique spoiler alert), the mysterious Arlington Steward takes on the Dr. Evil trappings of a gigantic underground chamber in the Arlington Air Force base to look nefarious in. At times, I couldn't help to associate him with his performance as Nixon in Frost/Nixon, a role that I didn't find all that convincing, and his formal winter clothes and old-fashioned homburg left me thinking of Peter Sellers' Chance the Gardener in Being There. The Lewis son has no real role except to be menaced later, and the forced drama late in the film seems way too manipulative and convenient to logically fit into any cosmic master plan.

7) After getting burned by the bombing of Southland Tales (2006), Richard Kelly has decided to toe the line and adapt his visionary aesthetics to the studio system. I don't blame him for that, but I wonder how much his decision compromised The Box. Instead of creating something genuinely prophetic (as Darko foreshadowed 9/11), The Box keeps calling attention to its attempts to amaze us, thereby diminishing the effect. When someone says to Arlington at one point, "This is all so mysterious," he replies "Well, I like mystery. Don't you?"


Richard Bellamy said…
I agree. This film tries too hard to be enigmatic - and it doesn't try hard enough to satisfy. I sure wanted more answers. Can you explain the whole thing to me, FilmDr?

An element I did like about it is that there were moments when it felt like a B sci-fi movie from the 50s or an Outer Limits episode: wooden acting, slow pacing, oddball but eerie music, cheap, tacky sets.

What was with the wallpaper in the couple's kitchen??? Yikes! All those huge ovals. Something symbolic?

The whole library thing threw me.

I know this is based on the story and a Twilight Zone episode based on the story - but it's also like the episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" - in which the aliens conquer earth by getting humans to kill each other out of fear and suspicion. That aspect of this movie seemed so outdated and done before.

Again, can you explain the whole thing to me? I read every word of your review and your assessments are right on, but I want somebody to tell me the whole story.

(Spoiler alert) I don't think Kelly intends for us to fully "get" the movie, but again there are some key differences with Donnie Darko. Darko sustains two major interpretations: 1) that Darko saves the universe, and 2) that he's crazy. Both interpretations hold up surprisingly well until the end. Also, Kelly prepares the viewer for lots of later developments through image patterns. The gunshot to the eye has many parallel shots of eyes, or a knife over Donnie's eye, or the Escher print, etc.

In contrast, The Box tends to throw things out that are not so well prepared for, the characterization is less surprising, and I miss all of the time travel stuff. I got the impression that Arlington, an employee for NASA, got struck by lightning, where he died, and came back alive with half of his face missing, but now he's got mystical powers that connect him to some alternate world, perhaps related to the afterlife. He talks of his "employers" obliging him to conduct this button unit business. The employers could be some Kafkaesque bureaucracy of higher powers that seem to blend in with NSA and covert government agencies. The button units are a "test" of humanity to see if they can resist killing each other off for greed. If enough people fail the test (and clearly they don't do that well in the course of the movie), then the higher powers might have to exterminate all of humanity. Once you do push the button, you face all kinds of wicked consequences, usually the torment of your child in exchange for the life of the wife, something that took place when Norma presses the button early on.

Meanwhile, Arlington gives Arthur at taste of the afterlife when he gets to choose between three water columns that suggest the moral choice between heaven and hell (and it suggests Let's Make a Deal). The heavy use of water imagery is consistent with Darko. Arlington's big underground lair appears to have water inserted on the edges of the mise en scene. The portals take the form of water in the swimming pool too, and in the bathtub when Walter returns from the other world.

Arlington has many spies for his organization, hence the difficulty Arthur has in investigating the guy, and people get nosebleeds under Arlington's influence. The spies or employees under Arlington have a slightly zombified Invasion of the Body Snatchers feel to them. They lurk in hotels and libraries. They move in coordinated patterns as needed.

I've been to that Richmond public library by the way. I guess(?) Arlington gave Arthur a taste of the watery afterlife to make the future shooting of his wife more palatable?

The ending of the film bothered me the most. There's nothing more cheaply wrenching than threatening a child (who has no interest or character in the film otherwise) with blindness and deafness just so we can endure one last scene where Diaz and Marsden can go through a painful decision to off her to save little Walter. It is cheap, common, and low, a forced climax. And what are the police doing in that final scene if the higher Arlington organization quickly bails out Arthur for murdering his wife? What are they going in this movie? Are they chickenfeed?

At the last moment, Arlington stands outside of his fancy car and tips his hat. Tips his hat at what? To broadcast what a cool mysterious villain he is? He is the kind of guy who can hang out in your breakfast nook at the end of the movie, say ominous things, and walk away. What a metaphysical properly-dressed bad-ass. It still seems like, given those powers, he could find something better to do than dispensing button units all day to gullible 1970s housewives.
Craig said…
Haven't seen this - and I won't - but I'm already envisioning the ten-second Family Guy parody, where the villain's monologue about the choice is interrupted by Peter immediately pushing the button and someone keeling over.
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr -

Thanks so much for telling me the whole story. The whole box test was clear to me - though I thought Arlington was some servant of aliens or that he was an alien. As for the whole library afterlife thing, thanks a lot for clarifying.

Now, tell me, how do you know all this? Are you an alien or some agent from an alternate world? Are movies better where you come from?

Also, is there an interpretation for that bizarre wallpaper in the Lewis's kitchen?

Also, thanks for the Donnie Darko interpretation; that film just left me befuddled and I didn't care for it much. I liked The Box better.

As a matter of fact, I took my daughter to see A Christmas Carol today, and I skipped the previews and stood in the next cinema to listen to the music for the closing credits of The Box. I liked the music - very B-50s-sci-fi with a little Bernard Herrmann thrown in - and as I stood there, I realized I kind of liked the movie for the most part.

Then at dinner I was telling my wife about the movie and I told her that if Arlington came to my door with that box, I'd tell him to go fuck himself, but she said she would consider it. Just consider it, she assured me.
Thanks, Craig. It is interesting how the wives always push the button in the movie. They end up being more crassly impulsive.

Very funny, Hokahey. I imagine my attempt at an interpretation deserves such a response. But now that you've admitted that you prefer The Box to Donnie Darko, could you please explain that more? Most of the critics have been giving Kelly the pitying treatment as they acknowledge the brilliance of Darko before panning The Box. You are the only one I know of to go in the opposite direction.
Richard Bellamy said…
I would need to watch Donnie Darko again in order to refer specifically to it, but I remember my students raving about it, so I watched it but I didn't really enjoy it.

I found it much more confusing than The Box, which is more interesting visually for me. I found the big black rabbit kind of silly.

A good task for me would be to re-watch Darko and then get back to you. Who knows, my opinion might change.
Sounds good. I still think that Kelly got slammed a bit harshly for The Box. Perhaps the extreme self-consciousness arising from creating Darko first led to his problems with the two more recent films.

Thanks for the link, by the way.
Daniel said…
"It still seems like, given those powers, he could find something better to do than dispensing button units all day to gullible 1970s housewives."

Hilarious! And true...

Well I find your description of the metaphysics as a spiritual metaphor well thought out - maybe too well thought out for Kelly to actually have meant it that way. Like Hokahey, I immediately suspected aliens from the opening titles and all of the NASA/Mars attention. Doesn't seem like they would have spent that much time talking about life elsewhere if Steward didn't represent it on earth.

And the clincher for me was the description of his miraculous recovery - that lightning struck him and he woke up laughing maniacally. I read that as the aliens possessing his body through the lightning, almost War of the Worlds-style, with the chief alien inhabiting Steward himself.

But you know what, the fact that we're talking (or I'm talking) about the details of this in the first place underscore the central problem with the film: it's about aliens (possibly) and alternate universes (possibly), instead of life and death and consequences and actions and hope and desperation. You know, all of those human experiences that a story with this kind of concept should have explored.
Good points, Daniel. Ultimately, Donnie Darko strikes me as better grounded due to its emphasis on mental illness as one good explanation for Donnie's behavior. The Box is grounded in a Twilight Zone episode, a shaky foundation for starters. Then Kelly piles on all of his trademark ambiguities in a manner that reminds me increasingly of David Lynch (with its deformities and dreamlike non sequiturs). The emphasis on Norma's foot and Arlington's face evokes The Elephant Man. Donnie Darko left me still trying to piece together a full explanation of what's going on, whereas I ultimately didn't care enough to fully figure out The Box. It's not compelling enough, I think in part due to the flat characterization of the Lewises.