Title: The Box
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery
Director: Richard Kelly
Screenwriters: Richard Kelly
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella
Commercial prospects for The Box hinge on its simple, tantalizing Twilight Zone conceit: A man comes to your door with a box. Inside the box is a mysterious device containing a big red button, the kind you’d expect to trigger some sort of emergency alarm. Press it, the man says, and someone, somewhere, whom you don’t know, will die — and you’ll receive a million dollars in cash. Stipulate that it is 1976 and that $1 million may go a little farther than it does today. What do you do?
That question is where the movie begins, but it ends very, very far away indeed. Richard Kelly’s The Box is fearless and bold, risking humiliation to challenge and transport you. Many people will hate it. The movie is such a grandly ambitious genre experiment that it will almost certainly flop at the box office, as moviegoers, snookered by the marketing that suggests harmless PG-13 horror, leave telling their friends that they just saw the worst movie ever.
Kelly’s debut was, of course, the now-legendary Donnie Darko, which turned the tale of a disaffected teenager into stirring, somewhat opaque science-fiction. Where that movie was concerned with one teenager’s quest for something genuine in the world, The Box sets its sights on the human condition: on our capacity for selflessness and good, and our obligations to others. And its ultimate sci-fi conceit, though I dare not give it away, is bigger even than Donnie‘s time-traveling, essense-of-the-universe speculation.
At heart, though, the movie is a paranoid thriller, obsessed with shadowy government conspiracies and pervaded by a Lynchian sense of uncertain doom. NASA scientist Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) and his wife Norma (Cameron Diaz) are in the midst of what seems like an unlucky streak. Arthur’s dreams of entering astronaut training are crushed by a rejection letter. Norma runs into some financial hardship, as the school where she teaches English cuts the benefit that let her and Arthur stay afloat. Then the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) — a burn victim missing half his face in a way nearly as gruesome as The Dark Knight‘s Harvey Dent — shows up at their door with the titular device and everything changes, though not for the better. Someone seems to be tracking their every move. Their son’s babysitter starts acting strangely. And why is everyone suddenly getting nosebleeds?
For some, The Box will work better thematically than literally. The plot holds its own, but contains elements so out there that Kelly doesn’t even try to make them fit together cleanly. Parts of The Box left me scratching my head, but I think it’s intended to raise more questions than it answers. This is, after all, a film that imagines Earth as a playground for intelligences orders of magnitude greater than our own. How much can our puny brains really be expected to grok?
The movie works on a micro level too, engaging us with its characters in ways that aren’t quite straightforward. It’s easy to feel sorry for Arthur and Norma at the beginning of the film — Arthur dreams appear to have been crushed, and Norma can’t seem to catch a break either, humiliated by a student who mocks her disfigured foot just before she’s called into the principal’s office to get some more bad news. It only seems slightly odd that Arthur drives an expensive-looking midlife-crisis Corvette, and that they live in a large, well-appointed house, and that they have a lovely, bright son, and still find plenty of reason to complain. At one point, Norma plaintively asks “Are we ever gonna get out of Richmond?” which is kind of a weird question, if you think about it.
Don’t worry: this isn’t a preachy count-your-blessings morality play. These things become important, but not quite in the way you might expect. The Box asks what we, as human beings, owe the rest of our species. Are our obligations to ourselves? To our families? The world? And is our duty to affirmatively help, or just do no harm?
This is heavy stuff — not exactly irrelevant to current events, either — and its handling is made all the more impressive by how beautifully The Box plays as a straight-ahead (if somewhat confusing) genre film. It’s suspenseful and truly creepy; generous and expansive; daring and ultimately kind of profound. Some of Kelly’s ambition is folly, but when he fails, he fails big. This is one of my favorite films of the year.