REVIEW: The Box [2009]

“You have blood on your hands”

Does anyone not push the button? What can I say about Richard Kelly’s supposed turn to mainstream cinema? Three things, and they are as follows: One, the marketing for The Box has to be some of the worst in the history of film. Warner Brothers is selling a completely different movie than what is shown on screen. This isn’t a thriller against the clock for a yuppie couple; it’s a fight for the salvation of the human race. Hell, it takes place in 1976 … bet you didn’t know that, huh? Two, how did Kelly get the money to make this thing at a big studio? Maybe it was the success of the most recent Richard Matheson adaptation, I Am Legend, but honestly, did any execs at WB read this script? It screams indie and it pulses Kelly, two things moderate budget has never been behind. And, three, this thing blew me away with its darkness, its bleak outlook on humanity, its deadpan, almost Lynchian characters, and its pitch perfect finale. Wow, I did not expect this at all.

I do not blame the studio for deciding to withhold press screenings. I’m not sure if that decision was made countrywide, but it definitely was for Buffalo, NY. Anyone going in expecting to see what the trailer delivered will leave, not only disappointed, but completely cheated as well. They won’t like the fact that you have to think while watching it, they won’t like the fact that the unexplainable occurs, and they most definitely will want their money back. However, if you are like me, somewhat intrigued with what a guy like Kelly can do in the studio system, you went in with marginally low expectations, only to be pleasantly surprised with the gem of a puzzle that he delivered. Matheson is not an easy man to adapt as one would see from the list of attempts. I myself have always been a fan of his challenging and intriguing viewpoint of both life and death. I think Stir of Echoes is underrated, I absolutely love What Dreams May Come, and I think Will Smith made the first half of I Am Legend fantastic, (haven’t seen the other tries at that source material). But it is in his short stories where most success had occurred, especially in his numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone”. It is here where The Box finds its closest relatives.

Yes, the crux of the story follows a young married couple with their son, trying to scrape by paycheck to paycheck despite her being a teacher and him being ever so close to going into outer space. They do make mention on how they spend too much, and it does appear they live very comfortably in the mid-70s, but events begin to occur to make things even tighter. They were counting on certain assurances to get them by and even become more comfortable, but it all seems to unravel until a visit by a strange man named Arlington Steward and his riveting proposal. We have a cursory idea on who this enigma with half his face burnt off is because of a short prologue-like textual introduction at the start. It was a memo from the NSA in Langley stating that Steward had been released from the hospital and sent to an undisclosed location where he manufactured the button device given to the Lewis couple. It is part of the Mars project and it is unknown what his motivations are. The deal he brings—press the button and you will receive one million dollars tax free, only after someone you don’t know dies as a result—is a moral quandary that would give even the most well off person pause. Put it in front of a family looking for help and being manipulated into that situation, of course they will take the plunge.

I love the way the film is shot in long, deliberate sequences. Some scenes were so stark and methodical that I kept thinking about Kubrick’s The Shining. Mix in the supernatural and you come close to what is put on display. But, it isn’t cheesy in any regard and becomes very reminiscent of Kelly’s debut Donnie Darko, always hiding something more nefarious beneath the surface. The one fault I see is that while that film left everything to the imagination, The Box attempts to explain things a bit too much, leading to the problem of the general population feeling cheated by its absurdity and the intellectuals feeling pandered to and babied. Unfortunately, you cannot please one side without truly enraging the other, so Kelly does his best to toe the line, leaning towards the intellectuals, but in the end disappointing both sides. But, once we see the layers being pealed back on Steward, the wheels start to churn and allusions to other life forms, (Mars is a big background element throughout the film), as well as God himself crop up. Purgatory is a hell of a place to reside when the glory of the afterlife waits. Darko showed an Earth worth saving and the sacrifice necessary in order to do so; The Box shows a world where greed and desire rule, where we cheat and steal to stay alive, yet only prolong our own suffering from that final release. Two very different viewpoints, both just as beautiful, cynical, and engaging as the other.

And it’s all wrapped into some very fine performances from all the principals. James Marsden shows once more why he deserves a higher star in Hollywood, Cameron Diaz again proves that maybe she can act after all, and Frank Langella’s Steward is everything you could hope for with a wolf in sheep’s clothing role. Everything he does is part of the test, doing his best to prove why ‘life’ should cease to be, how its value is little more than worthless when compared to selfish gains. But the Lewis family shows him hope; they show him that maybe some people do see the importance of their fellow man. Rules are rules, however, and the test doesn’t stop until the button is reset and put into the hands of a new subject, (I don’t even want to broach the topic of what this film says about the female sex, something about a quick trigger finger indeed). It is tough to say too much without ruining the experience of the film itself. I’ll just finish by saying every aspect is great, from the acting, the wonderful 70s aesthetic, and the plethora of clues littering the backgrounds from the numerous bloody-nosed employees and their ever-staring eyes. Kelly is slowly becoming a director that I need to keep up with, I just hope his penchant for alienating the audience he needs to succeed won’t ruin his resolve and creativity.

The Box 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] JAMES MARSDEN as Arthur Lewis and CAMERON DIAZ as Norma Lewis in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Radar Pictures’ and Media Rights Capital’s thriller “The Box,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Dale Robinette
[2] FRANK LANGELLA as Arlington Steward in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Radar Pictures’ and Media Rights Capital’s thriller “The Box,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


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