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The Box (2003)
by Del Harvey
A modern day film-noir set in Los Angeles about two people who finally find something worth living for, if only they can escape their pasts.
Frank Miles (James Russo - Donnie Brasco, Extremities), a professional thief, has just been released from a 3-year stretch in prison. Determined never to return, he follows the parole guidelines, checks into his fleabag hotel in downtown L.A. and settles into the drudge job as mechanic at a local wrecking yard. He meets Dora (Theresa Russell - Bad Timing, Black Widow), a good-looking waitress at the local diner, and their attraction is immediate. Whenever they're together, Frank can't help but notice that someone keeps calling and upsetting Dora. But she won't let him in on what the problem is, at least not at first.
Meanwhile, Frank visits former cohort Dickerson, a money man for a number of his big hauls. Dickerson (Jon Polito - TV's Homicide, The Man Who Wasn't There) is as slimy as he looks and, even though he promises to get Frank his share of the last big heist - the one that got him thrown into prison - he fails to come through. Instead he sends a couple of street toughs to kill Frank, but Frank's not easy to kill. After beating the crap out of these lowlifes, he stops in on Dickerson's swank hilltop house late one night, demanding his money. Dickerson makes all kinds of excuses, but Frank knows better. He finds Dickerson's safe and takes what little is there; $2,000 versus the $200,000 he's owed. Dickerson reaches his hidden gun and draws down on Frank, which is the last mistake he ever makes. Frank has done well to hide his tracks, and he gets out of Dickerson's house as quickly as possible. He makes a beeline for his buddy Stan's (Brad Dourif - TV's Deadwood, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) and tells him everything. Stan tells him to stay away from Dora - she sounds like trouble - and to forget about Dickerson. If his tracks are clean there's nothing to worry about.
But Frank can't help himself and he heads over to Dora's from Stan's. There he finds another car in the drive and sees a man's silhouette in the window. It's Jake (Steve Railsback - The Stunt Man, Ed Gein), Dora's ex-husband. He's doing what he seems to enjoy most in this world; he's yelling and screaming at Dora and hitting her when she won't say what he wants her to. Despite Dora's pleas for Frank to stay away, eventually he steps in and confronts Jake. And that's when things really start to go wrong for our two lovebirds.
The script was written by veteran character actor James Russo, who has crafted a piece with strong characters and full of the type of gritty situations true to the film noir genre. He shows that he understands his own limitations and his own persona very well, for his portrayal of Frank is the perfect match for Russo's hard-edged loner. I have to admit, I'm rarely a fan of Ms. Russell's, but here she finally portrays someone with flaws and desires I can empathize with. Of the rest of this stellar supporting cast, the ability of Railsback to go stone-crazy at the drop of a hat is most impressive. Like Blue Velvet's Frank Booth or The Prophecy's Gabriel, he is one cadaverous looking mother, and not someone you'd want to cross even on a good day.
While there is some action and gunplay in The Box, this is one of those rare small films that succeed largely due to a well-crafted story and excellent performances in front of and behind the camera. The direction, by Richard Pepin (The Sender) is accurate in its depiction of the tight, grim noir spirit. Cinematographer James LeGoy (Frost) and composer Chris Anderson (Wake) present sound and image in perfect noir fashion.
The story of two people who finally find love in a world that has always seemed against them, The Box is a beautifully constructed little noir, and should definitely be on any noir or crime fan's "must see" list for 2004.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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