Don’t Get Stuck In “The Box”

Posted: November 16, 2009 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

"The Box" Movie Poster

Oh, my. I wanted to like “The Box” so much. I am, you see, a huge Richard Kelly fan. Notice I didn’t say a “Donnie Darko” fan, even though I absolutely love that flick and feel it’s one of the few “cult sensations” truly worthy of its devoted fan base. No, I’m a Richard Kelly fan, because not only do I seriously dig Donnie D., but I think his much-maligned follow-up feature, “Southland Tales,” is even better.  Yes, it’s messy, unfocused, scattershot, overly ambitious, self-indulgent and, in many ways,  even juvenile.  But to my mind it’s also ambitious to a fault, multi-layered, challenging, funny, thought-provoking, ambitious, and even downright groundbreaking. Kelly’s “sins” with “Southland” can all be categorized under the “trying to do too much” category, as opposed to, say, Lars von Trier (I really should learn to leave him alone, I suppose),  whose chief failing with “Antichrist” is doing very little while employing obvious and insulting sleight-of-hand in broad daylight for the purpose of trying to hoodwink the audience into thinking he’s doing a lot.

After “Southland” tanked at the box office in spectacular fashion, Kelly apparently decided — or was forced — to pare down his ambitions considerably, and to concentrate his efforts on a tight little story that would play to his strengths while refusing to indulge his purported weaknesses. Would the result be an effectively creatively neutered Kelly or a sharpened, focused one?

Actually, neither. “The Box” is just a bland, lifeless time-waster.

Based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button,” the first third or so of “The Box” plays out well enough, and definitely has a “Twilight Zone” feel to it, with two efficiently-established and well-played characters,  schoolteacher Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz), and her NASA scientist-husband, Arthur (James Marsden) staring into a financial black hole largely of their own making in the mid-1970s. Then, a mysterious stranger with a fucked-up, partially decimated face named (and you gotta love this handle for a Rod Serling-type mystery man) Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) shows up at their door with a box and an offer : push the button on top of the said box within 24 hours and you’ll get a million dollars in cash. There’s just one catch : somebody, somewhere in the world (who, he assures Norma, neither she or her husband knows) will die.

It seems like a horrible joke, in a way — the box is empty, therefore it can’t possibly do anything, so pushing the button must be meaningless, right? Hell, the money is probably even counterfeit.

Except Arthur tests the hundred-dollar bill that Steward left with his wife in the lab at work and guess what? It’s real. But the box itself — it can’t have any actual power, can it?

The trepidation  builds as Norma and Arthur weigh the decision to push or not to push in their minds, and this dramatic tension is really the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, once they do, in fact, make up their minds, the whole movie goes to pot.

Without giving away the choice they make, let’s just say it has consequences and leads to a completely uninvolving mystery that eventually comes full circle. We learn everything there is to know about Steward and his freaky little contraption, every question we have is answered (and even some we don’t), and the ending completes our little 360-degree loop in much the same way that Lynch’s superb ending for “Lost Highway” did. Unfortunately, there is none of the expertly-crafted ambiguity nor any of the multiple levels of meaning and interpretation along the way that make “Lost Highway” an effective and absorbing surrealistic mini-masterpiece. Kelly’s film ends up feeling more like a map of the unknown than a journey within it. All is linear, defined, and hopelessly constricting. Our guy Richard doesn’t trust the audience enough to make up our own minds as individuals as “Donnie Darko” and, to an even greater extent, “Southland Tales” did. In fact, the lesson Kelly seems to have learned from “Southland” is that we just aren’t smart enough to draw our own conclusions.

This doesn’t mean I think that he has emasculated himself creatively, for the ideas at play here are, in fact, suitably offbeat and unexpected. But they’re all laid out so directly and succinctly that they fail to capitalize on their potential to keep us guessing. It’s as if Kelly feels he has to answer each new question that arises in the order that they appear, preferably  within a ten minute (or so) time frame,  before moving on to the next one because our attention spans can’t handle leaving more than one thread unresolved  at a time.

We’re smarter than Kelly gives us credit for with “The Box.” And so is he.

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