Written & Directed by: Richard Kelly
Full credits at IMDb
The Box, a moving, mystical, metaphysical epic of illogicality, puts into narrative action the sort of absurd ethical scenarios usually cooked up only for textbooks. (I can tell you from experience that doing so is the dream of every undergrad double majoring in film and philosophy!) Based on a Richard Matheson short story, once before adapted as an episode of the 1980’s Twilight Zone revamp, the film takes off when The Great Frank Langella turns up at the doorstep of Cameron Diaz and James Marsden with a box and a moral proposition: push the big red button and you’ll get a million dollars in untaxed cash. But someone you don’t know will die.
There’s a reel of decision-making (during which I kept thinking about the History Eraser Button) but of course the couple pushes the button and of course weird shit and moral lessons ensue. The surprise, for the casual multiplex goer (how this got a wide release is beyond me), is the degree of weirdness, though any film fan who spotted Richard Kelly’s name in the opening credits should have been prepared for such batshit; the director of Donnie Darko and the much maligned Southland Tales turns a simple story of button-pressing into sci-fi madness that touches on outer space exploration, life-changing lightning strikes and extra-terrestrial possession.
Kelly tries to keep himself under some kind of control here—or, more likely, Warner Bros. was begging him to tone it down—if not narratively then at least formally: The Box’s filmmaking fireworks draw less attention to themselves than those of Kelly’s other films, though he’s still a whiz with the crane and tracking shots; he also possesses a peerless knack for gradually raising the emotional intensity of a scene through music, as well as a talent for elaborate set design: taking place in the 1970s, the film is rich with creamy earth tone textures, as well as baroque wallpaper and tiling patterns. (Kelly’s visuals betray a powerful Kubrick influence, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut in particular.) It’s a stylized setting to befit the fantastical narrative.
As bonkers as it may play out—the script’s details and revelations, like a bloody nose epidemic and mobs of eerily zombielike irregulars, do little to locate the viewer within the escalating craziness—the story is rooted in real feeling, and not only in the central couple’s heartbreaking affection for each other; as it’s set in the 70s, the film features the same sort of recessionary desperation we’re feeling now: Diaz is a teacher about to be laid off, Marsden is a NASA scientist whose astronaut application has been rejected. (One possible reading of the fatal button press is that financial hardship leads to an erosion of the basic decency upon which society is built.)
But the contemporary parallels extend beyond the economic: Kelly’s story, bearing the scars of the Bush-era, includes a government conspiracy involving the phone-tappin’ NSA, and Langella has “employees” everywhere, spying on Americans as though part of the Terrorist Information and Prevention System (they’re in fullest force at the library, a sly comment on the old Patriot Act); the aura of suspicion grows so powerful that houses are, at least for a moment, divided upon themselves.
The Box, at root and in broad terms, is a lesson about learning to care more about the group than the self. (A common lesson as of late, from Ghost Town to The Simpsons Movie.) More specifically, though, it seems a parable about The Wars, about Americans’ willingness to kill strangers in exchange for prosperity—as long as they don’t have to get their own hands dirty, of course. Kelly’s final point is that kind of violence eventually comes back around, often sooner than later. Grade: A
Watch the trailer: