Why do people keep giving Richard Kelly a hard time? Oh sure, everyone just loved Donnie Darko, but where was the love for Southland Tales, which–when you really look at it–bore many, many similarities to what I always felt were the coolest aspects of Darko. Could it be that people just love Donnie Darko because it had the audacity to feature a man dressed as a demonic bunny prophesying the end of the world?
Kelly’s new film, The Box, is a bit simpler than both of those films, and yet still much more complex than you might expect, based on its trailer. It’s his first major-studio film, but it doesn’t seem that he let that deter him from making exactly the type of film he wanted to make.
Assuming for a second that there’s an “If you like A, then you’ll like B” formula for everything (there’s not, but just humor me here), then let’s say for a second that if you like The Twilight Zone, then you’ll like The Box. It’s got a terrific old-fashioned charm to it. There’s no sex or drugs or profanity, and the minimal violence is quite restrained. There’s just an eerie mood and involving storytelling.
The premise is taken from a Richard Matheson short story, titled “Button, Button,” which was, in turn, made into an episode of the 1980′s reboot of the Twilight Zone TV series. This film, however, feels much more like it might have been a product of the 50s-60s run of the show.
The story concerns the Lewis family: Norma (Cameron Diaz), Arthur (James Marsden), and their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone). One day, a mysterious disfigured stranger, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), shows up at their door (doesn’t this already sound like The Twilight Zone?). The previous night, he had left a package on their doorstep which contained an ominous black box with a big red button on it.
He makes Norma an offer. He tells her that if she pushes the button, someone somwhere in the world–whom she does not know–will die. In turn, she will also recieve a payment of $1 million. Do they press the button? Well, you can probably guess that on your own, but everything that happens afterward is so weird, wild, and bizarre that I’ll just stop right here.
The Box really is a pretty straight-forward little sci-fi flick, but if you’ve seen a Richard Kelly movie before (he’s only made two others), then you know that he’s definitely got a few tricks up his sleeve and has no qualms with leaving a few unanswered questions here and there. If you like that kind of thing, then you ought to enjoy the crazy ride as much as I did. I have my own theory of certain aspects of the plot’s function, and you’ll likely have yours as well.
Many people will hate this movie, though. Many for the reasons I just named (unanswered questions and the like), and many because of the strange way in which Kelly directs the picture. What I mean by that is that there’s sort of a peculiar sense of quiet throughout the movie, which gives it that 50′s Twilight Zone feel, and also makes it feel a bit like a David Lynch film. I really liked it and it was part of what kept me so into the movie, but others might find it awkward and jarring.
Speaking of awkward and jarring, one of the movie’s lesser qualities is that Cameron Diaz isn’t very good here. Her bad southern accent drifts in and out, and she doesn’t really seem to mesh well with that old-timey style that Kelly is going for. It’s not exactly a total loss, though, because–even though she headlines the movie–I felt like it ended up being more James Marsden’s movie than hers, and he’s really good here. He’s got a natural likability, and I just really bought him in the role.
And while I’m on the subject of performances, I can’t leave out Frank Langella, who is just as spooky as he needs to be. At any age, he always reminds me of Hammer-era Christopher Lee, which I guess stands to reason, as they have both played Count Dracula before. He’s not hamming it up here, but you can tell that he’s enjoying himself in his fun sinister way.
Not enough people saw this one over the weekend, and it’s a bit of a shame. It probably should’ve been released before Halloween, but it’s too late for that now. Maybe, like Donnie Darko, it will find its audience on video. Or maybe, like Southland Tales, only small pockets of people with really strange taste in movies will ever warm up to it.
There’s not really much else I can say about it that I haven’t already. Oh, sure, at some point there will be debates and discussions to be had, as well as the inevitable theory-swapping, but the movie is certainly too new for that kind of talk right now. Until then, I ask that you give it a shot if you’re looking for a good and decidedly old-fashioned science fiction story with a few fun modern tricks to be had.