‘The Box’: Too far outside – yet not far enough

November 6, 2009

Some bad movies you slag off gleefully. Their awfulness inspires you to reach high for insults as witty as the film is terrible.


Others provoke a certain disappointment at their failure, a kind of mourning at the difference between the film’s ambition and its execution. Richard Kelly’s “The Box” is such a film.


Kelly is a trippy, sometimes loopy filmmaker whose “Donnie Darko” is one of the great cult films of this century. In that film, his far less successful “Southland Tales” and now “The Box,” Kelly creates mind-twisting tales in which everyday conundrums unravel into conspiracies and plots of cosmic proportions. He’s like Robert Towne with an overlay of Rod Serling.


But Kelly spins paranoid fantasies with so many threads that he can’t quite keep track of them all – or make them connect in a meaningful way. That’s the problem with “The Box”: a great set-up leading to a muted, unsatisfying conclusion that doesn’t really pay off.


His film, taken from a short story by Richard Matheson, is set in 1976, to tie it to the Mars landing program that produced the first photos from that planet’s surface. Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) is a NASA scientist who worked on that program and who is awaiting approval to join the astronaut program. His wife Norma (Cameron Diaz) teaches English at a private school near their Richmond, Va., home, which their son attends. Portentously, she is teaching Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.”


One day before Christmas, a box arrives on their doorstep, a polished wooden object with a locked glass dome covering a button – like a panic button – of some sort. The box includes a note informing them that Mr. Steward (the name, of course, has significance) will be there that afternoon to see them.


Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) is a pip: a distinguished older gentleman in a homburg and cashmere coat, who happens to be missing a large chunk of his face. He looks like a well-dressed escapee from an early Sam Raimi film, his teeth peeping through the exposed gristle of his disfigured lower jaw.


He tells them that, if they push the button in the next 24 hours, someone they don’t know somewhere in the world will die – but they’ll receive a million dollars in cash. Everything that happens subsequently flows from the decision they make.


But as eventually becomes clear, they are pawns in a much larger game, one whose import and consequences are hinted at without ever being specifically addressed. There are a lot of people involved – many of them seeming like pod people from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except they regularly get bloody noses at the drop of a hat. There’s a wedding, the Mars project, mentions of the National Security Agency – really, the only thing missing are references to black helicopters. Meanwhile, humanity’s future apparently is on the line, based on how Arthur and Norma respond to Steward’s offer.


“Donnie Darko” wasn’t the world’s most coherent film, but you could swing with it, because Kelly did seem to tie it together, in a Moebius-strip kind of way. But the longer “The Box” goes on and the more people whose noses start to drip blood, the less sense – and suspense – “The Box” has to offer. Combine that with Kelly’s melodramatic use of music – like something out of a bad Hitchcock imitation – and studied pacing and you have a movie whose reach far exceeds its maker’s grasp of where this story is going or what it’s really about.


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