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?"