In 2001, director Richard Kelly made Donnie Darko, a strange little movie with teenagers about time travel and predestination. The film became a cult hit, but it’s ultimately more clever than good. One can only assume that this modest success gave Kelly the leeway to make Southland Tales (2006), a bloated, sprawling, odd film that might best be described as a bizarre mix of Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, Phillip K. Dick, Repo Man (1984), a plethora of divergent pop-culture references and a cast full of B-list celebrities. Needless to say, the movie bombed at Cannes and did no better after being re-cut and barely getting a stateside release.
So, it’d be no surprise to find Kelly reined in and forced to make a simple, straightforward thriller with The Box—and for a bit, this appears to be exactly the case. The film’s setup is based as much on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” as it is the 1986 Twilight Zone episode of the same name that the story spawned. Set in 1976 Virginia, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) are a seemingly happy couple who have suddenly found themselves in a financial bind due to changes in Norma’s teaching job and Arthur’s rejected application to become an astronaut. But an apparent solution to their problems comes from a disfigured stranger by the name of Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who gives them a simple wooden box with a button on top. According to Steward, if they press the button, they will receive a briefcase containing $1 million, but as a consequence, someone they do not know will die. If they refuse, the box will be retrieved and reprogrammed for someone else to use.
While Matheson’s story and its Twilight Zone episode mostly deal with the Lewises deciding whether or not to press the button, this is only a minor issue in Kelly’s film. It’s after the Lewises make their decision that the movie—and what Kelly has added to the story—kicks in. This is also the point when the film stops being a run-of-the-mill thriller and instead becomes yet another oddity I’m surprised got into theaters. Here, the film begins to focus not only on Steward’s origins and his connection to a NASA project involving Mars, but the purpose of the box as well, becoming more like some forgotten episode of The X-Files. Ultimately, all of this is so Kelly can touch on many of the same concerns he brought up in Southland Tales: ideas about salvation and redemption and what can be seen as the fine line between science and God, all the while quoting Sartre and touching on existential philosophy. And, if you really want to delve into the film, there are certainly ideas about original sin and free will, as well. It’s heady stuff for a multiplex, and there are no easy answers: two things that won’t win over a lot of moviegoers.
Now don’t get me wrong, The Box isn’t quite as off-the-wall as Donnie Darko, and never even flirts with the strangeness of Southland Tales (but let’s be honest, few things outside of, say, John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) are quite that odd)—this was most likely a conscious decision on someone’s part. In a way, The Box feels like Kelly’s attempt at being mainstream, something that makes the weird parts of the film (such as the scene set in a library filled with Steward’s creepy automated minions and the peculiar, out-of-nowhere way in which this scene resolves itself) just that much weirder, since it’s cast in relief to some relative normality.
The Box isn’t a perfect film, but it’s one that, nevertheless, should prove fascinating to those who like their cinematic curios. This is one movie that manages to walk the fine line between preposterous and engrossing. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.