Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 11, 2010)
Best known for the cult hit Donnie Darko, director Richard Kelly delivers a thriller with a twist via 2009’s The Box. Set in 1976, the doorbell awakens suburban couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden).
They find a mysterious box on their doorstep, and this sends them on a dark, improbable journey. A disfigured messenger named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) tells them that if they press a button on the box, it will kill a stranger. Why do this? Because Steward will reward them with $1 million if they press the button. Norma and Arthur debate this, and the film follows the ramifications of their choice.
And much, much more. Box provides one major surprise: it resolves the “will they push it?” question after a little more than half an hour. That’s theoretically a good thing, as 116 minutes of “should we or shouldn’t we?” would be tough to stomach. That’s what I expected, as the couples’ ultimate decision felt like it’d be the film’s climax, but we still have 80 minutes of movie to go after the initial dilemma becomes resolved.
When I said “that’s theoretically a good thing”, I did so because those subsequent 80 minutes are such a drag. Not that the first 30-something minutes are particularly interesting either, especially because parts of them don’t make any sense. Who in their right mind would take Steward’s proposal seriously? How are Norma and Arthur going to account for their new fortune? Steward tells them it’s tax-free, but I still suspect they’d set off some bells at the IRS.
One major snag occurs when Arthur – literally a rocket scientist – opens the box and discovers it has no mechanical innards. He dismisses it as a hoax that couldn’t transmit a “death signal”. Dilemma over, right? Wrong – Arthur immediately jettisons his rational side and continues to buy into the notion that pressing the button kills someone.
Other inconsistencies abound during the opening 30 minutes, but they’re nothing compared to the mess that occurs during the rest of the film. When I reviewed Darko, I noted that it was a borderline incoherent mess, but it was a fascinating borderline incoherent mess. To some degree, Darko was a failure as a movie because it almost literally required footnotes to make sense; only after I listened to Kelly’s commentary did much of its nature reveal itself.
Viewers shouldn’t need outside information to comprehend a movie; external sources can add to one’s appreciation of a film, but they shouldn’t be essential, and they were for Darko. I forgave Kelly because Darko was just damned fascinating; even when it made little sense – and that was often – it provided an engrossing affair.
Alas, the same cannot be said for the muddled, meandering Box. Kelly adapted the film from a Richard Matheson short story, and Box often felt like a really padded take on a brief tale. The Matheson original ends not long after the decision whether or not to press the button; there’s a denouement/twist but that’s about it.
As I mentioned, that’s what I expected here, but Kelly decided to Darkofy the story to expand it to feature length. Essentially this means he adds elements that feel like a mash-up of Close Encounters and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Those movies made sense, which is more than I can say for the impenetrable Box. If you hop around the Internet, you’ll find plenty of theories about What It All Means, and some of them might actually be correct. I don’t doubt that Kelly does have an overall point of view/message that he wishes to convey; that was clearly the case with Darko, so I believe it’s true here as well.
How about you find a way to tell a coherent story, Richard? With The Box, he dips too far into the Darko well. Kelly tempted fate with Darko and was lucky it worked as well as it did. If he continues to follow the same “creepy/odd movie with abundant puzzling elements”, he’s going to weird himself out of a career. He got away with it for Darko, but it’s awfully hard to repeat that trick again.
Maybe I’m just too stupid to understand Kelly’s point, but I think the movie comes across like pretentious drivel. I suspect people will knock themselves out with interpretations meant to “prove” their own intelligence and insight. Maybe Kelly made an intentionally obscure, nonsensical movie just to stick it to these people and laugh at them as they go out of their way to explain something with no real point.
Or maybe he just can’t make a coherent film. He sure burdens this one with illogical/idiotic moments, and he even ventures into material that becomes offensive. I don’t want to say too much about a certain plot development, but the way it occurs, Kelly implies that it’s better to be dead than to be deaf and blind.
Seriously? Perhaps Kelly didn’t intend to send that message, but that’s almost literally what the flick tells us. This is tremendously insulting and crass. The film uses this element as an important plot twist, but it should’ve found a different way to set up the twist; the decision to depict deafness/blindness as a form of living hell is genuinely cruel.
Even without that tasteless element, The Box would’ve been a dud. It fails to tap tension from its inherent moral dilemma, and once that issue gets resolved, it meanders for 80 more minutes of pseudo-religious/sci-fi claptrap. All of this makes it a tedious, pretentious pile of nonsense.