Richard Kelly belongs in the category of directors who get famous off their first cult hit, and never seem to do anything worthwhile again. They are the cinematic equivalent of a one hit wonder. Kelly came into the cultural eye with his hit on DVD surprise, Donnie Darko. The movies mysterious and dark overtones (along with a catchy soundtrack), gave it a place in cinematic history. Unfortunately, he followed it up with the sloppy Southland Tales. Is The Box the film to redeem him? Sadly, no.
Norma and Arthur Lewis are a pretty standard suburban family in the 70s. Norma teaches at the local private school, and Arthur is a scientist for NASA who has dreams of being permitted the honor of being an astronaut. Their marriage seems to be a loving and nurtured relationship. They have a son who is the center of their relationship. Everything seems to be going well. They have a beautiful house, and Arthur drives a nice Corvette Stingray. Everything changes when an unmarked box arrives at their door one night. In the box is another wooden box with a button, and a note. The note tells of a meeting with a man. This man has an offer to make. That is no ordinary button, if you press it you recieve one million dollars tax free, but it has the consequence that “someone you do not know will die”. Things are not as simple as they appear, there is more too the box than what first meets the eye.
Watching the couple struggle over what to do is one of the best bits in the movie, even if at time it seems disingenuous. They complain about living from paycheck to paycheck, but both husband and wife seem reasonably well taken care of. Norma seems to be well dressed, Arthur drives a nice sports car, and the house is pretty nice for the era. So, it is a bit hard to believe they are really struggling (if they are, they put themselves there).
Once we finally get into the story, the plot makes all kinds of convoluted twists and turns that never seem fully fleshed out. There are very few people after all the length and amount of turns in the story who are going to leave satisfied. Kelly seems to have the same problem as his other films. Where Donnie Darko just enough was explained to keep you satisfied, The Box seems to be more along the lines of Southland Tales where it gets caught up in its own concepts. Kelly has an intriguing style that works with the slow build he creates, but in the end it seems like an ultimately pointless venture. I still can’t decide if it was the lack of mystique or too much explanation that left the sour taste in my mouth. Was the explanation given for the events so far fetched and ludicrous that I just couldn’t accept the story?
Both James Marsden and Frank Langella pull off good performances, with Marsden outshining most of the cast around him. Marsden’s character Arthur is one of the only genuine characters in the film. His love for his family seems apparent, and his despair when things start to go wrong seems fully potent. It is a shame that Diaz just can’t seem to catch up. I was all to aware that she was acting, maybe it was the false sounding southern accent. Her attempt at deep emotion seemed to fall flat and was a low point in an already confusing film. Langella plays his character with a great amount of mystery and an enigmatic quality about him. At one moment fatherly and the next devious, he occupies the role of the sympathetic villain so well that you almost wish he was in another film.
Kelly should ultimately be praised for the atmosphere he creates in the film. I was intrigued the whole time, and the beautiful lighting, sound, and score helped with that all. The final thirty minutes of the film leave such a gap in what should be closure for the audience that it is ultimately irredeemable. The film was adapted from a short story which was later turned into a Twilight Zone episode, it might have fared better in a shorter context. This one might be nice for a spooky rental, but for most it is not going to be worth the price of admission.