by Jason Coffman
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The fact that The Box is Richard Kelly’s most accessible and straightforward film so far is unquestionable. This is the man responsible for Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, after all. Donnie Darko quickly became a cult favorite due in part to its numerous loose ends, and a strong online community of fans devoted to dissecting the film and teasing out its secrets. Southland Tales took the sci-fi surrealism of Donnie Darko and cross-bred it with Magnolia— a sprawling, bizarre epic full of intriguing concepts and inspired imagery, even if it did feel like Kelly’s far reach exceeded his grasp, and keeping the audience up on what the hell was going on seemed to be pretty low on the list of priorities.
With The Box, Kelly returns to a more intimate suburban canvas, but retains most of the obsessions that have become his trademark. The first half of the film is mostly a recognizable adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” (also adapted as an episode of the 1980s incarnation of The Twilight Zone). Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz), a couple living in 1970s Richmond, Virginia, are presented with a device by a strange man, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Steward delivers the device to their home and returns later with an ultimatum: they have 24 hours to push the large button on top of the device. If they push it, they will receive $1 million in cash and someone who they do not know will die.
The deck seems stacked against Arthur and Norma by the time they get around to seriously discussing what to do with the button: Arthur is rejected for astronaut training and Norma learns that the faculty discount that allows their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) to attend private school is being discontinued. Additionally, Norma needs a surgery for her foot, disfigured years before in an accident. Under the circumstances, pressing the button seems justified. Unfortunately, once the bargain is made it cannot be undone, and one of the rules of the deal is that Norma and Arthur are never to discuss their encounter with Steward with anyone. Arthur, worried sick by his conscience, tries to find information on Steward, and soon the Lewis family seems surrounded by Steward’s “employees.”
Despite its strange subject matter, The Box is almost more of a family drama than a sci-fi thriller. Kelly gives the action of the film a solid foundation in the Lewis family and their relationships with each other. James Marsden and Cameron Diaz are both excellent, and it’s easy to identify and sympathize with their actions. The film has many creepy moments, but it’s more unnerving than overtly horrific. By the end, it becomes clear that The Box is basically a Greek tragedy in Ice Storm drag more than anything else. And, once again, Kelly leaves the audience with more questions than answers.
It’s hard to imagine The Box being a big mainstream hit, which is unfortunate as it seems Kelly could really use one after the difficulties he had with Southland Tales. If anything, The Box proves that Kelly at his most accessible is still more than willing to challenge audiences with unusual concepts and leave them chewing on a film long after it’s over. In short, The Box is one of the best major-studio American films of the year. And now I’m more curious than ever about what Richard Kelly might be up to next.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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