The Box divided critics—even our in-house critics. Eric Young defends the movie, but read to the end for Gregory J. Smalley‘s opposing opinion.
DIRECTED BY: Richard Kelly
FEATURING: Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella, James Marsden
PLOT: A man comes unsolicited one morning to the doorstep of a financially troubled family with a proposition: if they press a button he gives them within 24 hours, they will receive $1 million, and someone in the world, whom they don’t know, will die.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Kelly’s surreal odyssey through Virginia in the mid 70s is hauntingly strange. One would not think it to be remarkably anything from the marketing, the extremely negative reviews put out by, um, pretty much everyone, and a tame, seemingly safe cast. But this is Richard Kelly, so nothing is really as it seems. The Box needs to be considered for the List because Kelly tells a morality story involving aliens, God, and Jean-Paul Sartre in ways that are as flippant and off-handedly odd as Fellini, as unflinching as Lynch, and as psychologically insightful as Cronenberg. And while Kelly is not as good a filmmaker as those three, he has grown undeniably in his talents since Donnie Darko, and this time his story is just as weird.
COMMENTS: The Box is a little more complex than you’re led to believe by the trailers. I was honestly underwhelmed when I first heard about the idea, but after hearing more about it, it started growing on me. I wanted to know what the deal was with this button, and what I got was beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s unusually dense for a Richard Kelly movie, filled with haunting music, esoteric imagery, and references to existential philosophy. In a way, The Box is Kelly’s most obscure work yet, even more obscure than his previous film, the dumb, loud Southland Tales. Although Kelly’s touted it as his commercial movie, I have the feeling that he might never have actually seen a commercial movie, because what he came up with is quite weird, and more than a little off-putting for the average moviegoer.
Kelly’s imagination makes the film something special. He takes a simple, bare-bones concept from a Richard Matheson short story and adds a third, and perhaps even a fourth, dimension to it, borrowing both from the Twilight Zone episode of the same name and from his own eccentricities. The Box is divided into three acts. The first act is the entirety of the Matheson story, neatly told like a television episode, with only minor asides. The third act is a reprise of the first act, with a new proposition put forth and a dastardly cyclical chain of events revealed. But the second act is, from what I gather, completely and utterly original. The plot goes from something reminiscent of an “Outer Limits” episode to the most mind-boggling sequences imaginable. People contacted by aliens through lightning, a community possessed by otherworldly powers, and a climactic scene in the public library that wins my vote for weirdest scene of the year occupy this middle portion, and while I think the movie is well-rounded, the weirdness quotient is jammed up nice and tight in the middle.
It’s not all good. There are a few things I could have done without. First, Norma, played by Cameron Diaz, has a ridiculous-looking disfigured foot, a handicap that neither looks real nor plays any huge factor in the film. It’s simply an oddity for the sake of being an oddity, and while one scene uses it for leverage (HA!), and other scenes make the slightest attempt at referencing it, it seems like a big deal is made of it for no payoff. Also, there are a few characters that deserved a little more screen time, while others are given a full set of scenes! I could have done without knowing so much about Arthur’s NASA boss, who never really contributed much, but good luck trying to get an elusive character like the alleged murderer Lucas Carnes on screen for more than a minute. I would have preferred to become immersed in the intricate story rather than see Norma’s sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner and reception. And every now and then you get this weird feeling that Richard Kelly, who also wrote this, doesn’t really interact with people, and doesn’t have an idea of how conversation sounds. Some of his dialogue is unwieldy, and that flaw is only amplified by the hushed tone of his conspiracy-theory style of conclusion-jumping.
James Marsden is good as Arthur, the devoted dad who works at NASA but could use a few extra bucks to help out with the bills and his child’s college education. He has a lot of nuances that help the character breathe; even though Marsden is chiseled from limestone, it appears, I still buy that he could have worked at NASA in the 70s. Diaz, however, is a problem as Norma. The main issue is that I can’t stand it when people use unnatural accents, and Diaz as a Southern lady is a stretch for her Cali girl palette. I think she could have lost the accent and not appeared to be a total outcast; not everyone in the South sounds like Sookie Stackhouse, you know. Frank Langella shines as the mysterious man known only as Arlington Steward, a man with a horribly disfigured face who delivers the box to them for unknown and perhaps unknowable purposes. He is a terrifying presence who exerts a peculiar will in the film. Here, he showcases his growth as an actor, from an inferior incarnation of Dracula in the beginning of his career to a real power player now. All of my favorite scenes feature him in them.
In the end, The Box is about morality, and how morality, and the lack thereof, is perceived by others. In some ways, we are all worried about how our choices in life will make us look, and at times we ponder the long-reaching effects of those choices. The Box itself represents an immediate dilemma that tests the limits of morality, and highlights our ability to look the other way and forget the long-reaching effects of cruelty and thoughtlessness, to face of our own lack of decency. It also has Frank Langella with only half a face. What more cold you want from a movie?
Gregory J. Smalley‘s alternate take: it shouldn’t make the List: The Box is well within the weird genre. The problem is, the weird elements seem grafted into the middle section by Kelly almost as a way to pad the film, while the beginning and end of the movie tell a different story, an ethical science fiction parable from Richard Matheson. It’s also, in my opinion, not a very good movie. The way the initial scenario is set up, the decision whether or not to push the button is not a valid moral test, and generates little suspense, because the young couple is never given any reason to believe that Arlington Steward has magical powers and that pressing the button will actually cause someone to die. You may be able to invent a reason to get past this flaw, but you won’t be able to get past the flat acting. Langella is good, although almost upstaged by his makeup, but Cameron Diaz is simply substandard. Her accent is distractingly bad and unnecessary, and although her character should generate some empathy, she never pulls it off. James Marsden’s performance is forgettable and generic. I was never involved with these characters at all. The middle of the film is indeed eerie and weird, but there’s no payoff to it: what the heck did the husband choosing one of three portals have to do with anything? Did he choose the right one? The issue is just dropped when Kelly returns from his bizarre lark to resume telling Matheson’s story. Finally, in an attempt to end on a chilling coda, the closing scene (probably accidentally) suggests that there was no free will involved in pushing the button, which undoes the entire premise of the movie!
The reviews on The Box were not universally terrible; the film had several defenders (including warhorse Roger Ebert), but those who hated it, really hated it.
Because of that middle section, the weak weird field in 2009, and Eric’s endorsement, I don’t think The Box can be eliminated from contention as one of the 366 best weird movies of all time, but I wouldn’t be comfortable certifying it for the List until we dig a little deeper and examine what else is out there hanging about on the fringes. So, into the borderline bin The Box goes.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The Box is a mess, but it’s a curiously haunting, intriguing, brain-tickling mess, and it delivers that Donnie Darko feeling in truckloads.”–Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald (contemporaneous)
“Kelly’s writerly ambition gets the most of him here – most nonfan audiences will likely leave The Box baffled – as he layers on a deep-pile, Seventies shag rug’s worth of ominous subplots that, while undoubtedly weird, has neither the interlocking backstory nor the off-kilter oddness of Donnie Darko.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)