The Box

Movie Information

The Story: A couple in financial straits is given a box with a button on top, which -- if they decide to press the button -- will give them $1 million, but also kill someone they do not know. The Lowdown: A surprisingly engaging thriller that’s too odd and un-Hollywood -- but in a fascinating kind of way -- to be for everyone.
Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller
Director: Richard Kelly (Southland Tales)
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne
Rated: PG-13

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.


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7 thoughts on “The Box

  1. Dionysis

    Your review makes the film seem a lot more interesting than the television previews suggest. I’ll have to add it to my list to see within the next week or so. Thanks.

  2. Justin Souther

    Your review makes the film seem a lot more interesting than the television previews suggest. I’ll have to add it to my list to see within the next week or so. Thanks.

    You’re welcome. Keep in mind, I heard tale of walk-outs and patrons asking for refunds from one local theater manager, so if you’re prone to that sort of thing (which I’ve gathered from your posting you’re not) you might want be cautious.

    Also, keep in mind that this thing made no money — and I doubt word of mouth will help — so you’ll want to catch it soon if you want to see it in a theater.

  3. brebro

    According to Entertainment Weekly, this film got an unprecedented “all Fs” in opening weekend movie goer polls and may be the most hated movie EVER.

    I can’t help but wonder if people going to a movie with Cameron Diaz called “The Box’ did not feel misled when it turned out to be about an actual box.

  4. Ken Hanke

    According to Entertainment Weekly, this film got an unprecedented “all Fs” in opening weekend movie goer polls and may be the most hated movie EVER.

    Then it must be doing something right.

  5. entopticon

    It certainly wasn’t perfect, but I found it to be a whole lot more interesting than the usual Hollywood output. It seemed very much like a Philip K Dick short story, and for me that is definitely a good thing. I appreciated some aspects of it being set in the ’70’s, but I am not sure that it was truly integral. I had mixed feelings about the woodenness of Twilight Zone stylistic approach, but it definitely didn’t ruin it for me. It’s something that I would see again.

  6. TokyoTaos

    Yes, I can’t really recommend The Box to anyone but I’m glad I saw it. It was interesting and memorable if more than a little strange. It segways from what seems like a straight thriller in the first half to unexpected paranormal in the second half – which was when the film totally lost the other two people I saw it with. It’s definitely never boring though and you’re sort of trying to figure it out and saying, ‘What the hell?!’ all at the same time.

  7. DrSerizawa

    There’s probably more actual thought put into this movie than any 10 Studio releases last year put together. Kelly does have a couple of conflicting explanations going on here… is this Redemption or Judgement for the human race? Be that as it may I enjoyed it and found it middling compelling. This is good in an era where the words “compelling” and “movie” don’t go together often.

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