Magic floating water, alien conspiracies, murderous astronauts, shady NSA cover-ups, and lightning bolts filled with knowledge. Welcome to the outrageously awful world of Richard Kelly’s imagination. But we should be used to these types of things by now, right? This is the same Richard Kelly who gave us the inventive and thought-provoking Donnie Darko, before he spiraled it out of control with one too many open endings and alternate universes. Kelly then took 5 (!) years to fully evolve the multi-thread, incoherent mess that was Southland Tales. Both of these movies deal with time-travel, alternate realities, head scratching conspiracy theories, and nuclear apocalypse; why would we expect something different with The Box? Maybe it was because that while the premise is a little sci-fi, the story seems to be almost completely grounded in reality. Or maybe it was because we figured the simple, yet genius short story Button, Button, written by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, would provide a stable template for Kelly to elaborate upon. Either way, any preconceived notions we might have had about The Box, we were wrong, wrong, wrong.
The Box, Kelly’s third film in 10 years, stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as Norma and Arthur Lewis, a well-to-do suburban couple residing in Virginia in 1976. Their life seems to be happy enough until a series of unfortunate events almost destroys the Lewis’ financial well being in a single day. Soon thereafter, they are presented with a peculiar solution to their money woes by a creepy, disfigured stranger: simply press a button and two things will happen. One, they will receive one million dollars cash and two, someone, who they do not know, will die. This quandary is rife with moral and ethical judgments, which are handled wonderfully in a kitchen conversation between Norma and Arthur before they make their decision.
This set-up embodies 95% of the original story, and everyone involved, including Frank Langella as the mysterious Mr. Steward, regurgitates it beautifully. The problems lie wherein Richard Kelly attempts to develop a convoluted back story of the box and Mr. Steward. He somehow manages to shoehorn alien abduction by use of lightning, eternal damnation, some sort of nonsensical take on religion and the afterlife, permanent disfigurement to an innocent child, and scary Santa’s into the middle of the movie that is just another retread of the material covered in his first two films. Kelly manages to pull together a heart wrenching ending though; he smartly ignores all of his otherworldly ideas and lets emotion take over. The final scene between Diaz and Marsden is dazzling, proving a depth that neither actor has ever displayed before.
If The Box does nothing else, it solidifies Richard Kelly as yet another one trick pony director, joining the likes of Michael Bay and Kevin Smith. He somehow succeeds in taking a talented group of actors, a creative premise, and a wonderful cinematographer (the film itself looks like it was made in the 70s – in a good way) and wastes them all, opting to retreat to his comfort zone of weird things that make no sense. The Box is nowhere near the sum of its parts, and the blame can squarely go onto Richard Kelly’s shoulder and his god-awful script.
2 / 5 stars