The Box

(2009)

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

If you’ve ever stumbled across a notorious critical and commercial bomb on cable and thought, Hey, this isn’t so bad, this is the column for you. Each month, we’ll examine a new failed film that’s worth a second look.

Instead of sweeping you along, The Box just sits there like something unclaimed at lost and found. — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Rather than a provocative spiritual allegory, The Box arrives on our doorsteps as a sophomorically obvious sermon about greed and altruism. — Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

Worst among the foolish lot is Cameron Diaz, who plays Norma Lewis, a wife and mother who also is an English teacher. In a heavy-handed bit of symbolism, she is also a fan of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And as the movie edges toward two hours, we’re yearning to paraphrase its line “Hell is other people” to “Hell is this movie.” — Claudia Puig, USA Today

When people ask me about writer-director Richard Kelly’s films, my advice is unfailingly consistent: Donnie Darko is a masterpiece, Southland Tales is to be avoided at all costs, and The Box takes an insanely unfair amount of scorn for a film that creates such a brilliantly realized tone of inevitable doom. Often, the person asking the question nods to my assessment of the first two films as I have obviously just backed-up what they had already heard. And then they look at me like I might be insane for defending The Box. Even though they never saw it, they have heard unforgivable things about the film from their friends who never saw a Cameron Diaz film they didn’t love…until she hooked up with Richard Kelly.

The critical reaction to The Box really amused me. Coming on the heels of the sorely miscalculated Southland Tales, many critics assumed that Kelly would be on his best behavior. After all, he had to prove that he was more than just a cult filmmaker. He had to show that he could deliver a mainstream, commercial success to keep his career from sinking, right? Working from the short story “Button, Button” by revered sci-fi author Richard Matheson, it seemed that Kelly was going to deliver the straightforward genre piece that the critics and Warner Bros. expected of him. Oh, the fools.

Set in 1976 Richmond, Virginia, The Box tells the story of the Lewis family, a normal suburban household who live just beyond their modest means. Arthur (James Marsden) is a technician working for NASA at the Langley Research Center. Smart, driven, and level-headed, he is fast on his way to joining the astronaut training program. His wife Norma (Cameron Diaz) is an English teacher at a private school. Due to a childhood accident, she lost four of the toes on one of her feet and needs additional surgery that promises to be expensive. Their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) is bright and inquisitive, but they can’t afford his tuition to Norma’s school without her faculty discount. That’s when Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) enters their lives.

Steward is a man of elegance and impeccable manners. These characteristics are trumped by the fact that the left side of his face is practically nonexistent due to his being hit by lightning. He presents Arthur and Norma with a box that contains a button. If they choose to press the button, two things will happen:

  1. They will receive one million dollars, tax free.
  2. Someone they don’t know will die.

Driven by the sudden revocation of Norma’s faculty tuition discount and Arthur’s unexpected rejection from the astronaut-training program, Norma presses the button.

For the first act of the film, Kelly follows Matheson’s simple morality tale very closely. Aside from some sinister touches involving nosebleeds and strangers acting oddly when they come into contact with Norma or Arthur, Kelly seems to be offering the mainstream film expected of him.

Then the rest of the film happens.

Arthur and Norma pitch themselves headfirst into an ever-expanding conspiracy that springs from an experiment being conducted by Steward at the behest of “those who control the lightning.” This experiment may or may not include the NSA, the NASA Mars Viking probe that Arthur worked on, and hundreds of zombie-like people who keep an eye on the couple at all times. Their friends and family may be among the watchers, lending an increased sense of paranoia.

As was to be predicted, critics and general audiences balked, complaining about the labyrinthine plot, the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer references to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, and Diaz’s atrocious southern belle accent. I don’t mean to sound smug when I claim that I didn’t find the plot too dense to understand. It has several surreal twists and turns, and Arthur and Norma’s investigation leads to several dead ends, but most everything is explained by the film’s end. In Kelly’s view, any loose threads that are not tied up are just not worth exploring. I tend to agree with him.

Even if the film had been as confusing to me as it apparently was to other people, I still would have found much in it to recommend. Kelly once again shows himself to be a master at creating a claustrophobic mood of inescapable doom. Once Norma pushes the button, the film is drenched in an atmosphere of dangerous paranoia that is not that far removed from the classic conspiracy films of the ’70s that Kelly is trying to emulate. The fact that he set the film in that decade is no accident.

By combining the paranoia of films like All the President’s Men and The Parallax View with the metaphysical sci-fi of his own Donnie Darko, Kelly creates an expensive art film that seriously approaches topics like greed versus altruism, how far people will go to protect someone they love, and morality in relation to the promise of an afterlife. The film sometimes loses focus on the plot as scenes and characters are dropped in to discuss these ideas. While these moments drag on the film’s forward momentum, I was grateful for their inclusion. Even if the ideas discussed aren’t new or particularly revelatory, at least they’re intelligent questions being raised in a studio film. I will never fault a film for trying to be too smart.

The film is also extraordinarily effective at getting under the viewer’s skin. The zombie-like watchers are disturbing and used to chilling effect. As is the score by Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, and Owen Pallet. Alternating between icy minimalism and over-the-top bombast, the score constantly keeps the viewer on edge, even during the early scenes before the characters are presented with the box. Through these elements — along with the off-kilter use of slow dolly shots — Kelly earns a greater sense of creeping dread than many recent horror films put together.

While I agree with many critics that Diaz goes over-the-top with her accent, I found her to be far stronger in this film than anything else she has done. There is a vulnerability to her performance that provides truth to Norma’s lifetime of living with a painful limp. Marsden is also appealing as Arthur. He has to be the steady leading man that the film relies on the viewer to follow through the twists and turns. It’s not a showy role, but he is likable, and I really found myself rooting for him to discover a way to escape their predicament. Langella manages to steal the movie. His gently authoritative voice lends believability to some of the more outlandish explanations that Steward gives for his experiment. In addition to his wonderful voice, he is able, through just the slightest change in facial expression, to project menace or sympathy. He is the boogeyman and the comforting parent all wrapped in one.

Even with its critical and commercial failure, The Box proved that anyone who expects Richard Kelly to just roll over and be a studio hack is sorely mistaken. I, for one, am relieved by that realization. I can live with the occasional misfire like Southland Tales so long as I know he is still capable of delivering complex, challenging, and truly unnerving works like Donnie Darko and The Box. He is a singular talent, and I look forward to what he does next.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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