The Box (2009) (DVD)

You can have the washer-dryer, or you can trade for what’s in this box.

How far would go for million bucks? Would you do whatever it takes, even if it meant compromising your ethics and personal principles? If you did compromise—not that you ever would—would it be possible to go back, and get a second chance at such a crucial choice?

Arthur Lewis (James Marsden, Sex Drive) and his wife Norma (Cameron Diaz, Charlie’s Angels) have fallen onto hard financial times. Norma has just lost her job as a teacher, and Arthur, a NASA tech guy, has been rejected in his bid to become an astronaut. In the midst of these personal crises, a mysterious disfigured man named Mr. Steward (Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon) shows up, giving the couple a small black box with a red button on it. He explains that if they press the button, two things will happen. First, they will receive $1 million in cash, and second, someone they don’t know will die.

Arthur and Norma struggle with this decision, and whether it’s genuine. As they’ll come to see in the days that follow, the box and its button is merely the top of the metaphysical iceberg. Why were they chosen for this? Who is Mr. Steward? How is any of this possible? Is there another way out?

Writer-director Richard Kelly burst onto the scene a few years back with his excellent debut film Donnie Darko, which combined dark humor and a mind-bendy sci-fi plot to great success. Kelly’s follow up was the ambitious Southland Tales, a political satire that was booed at Cannes and confounded all those who saw it. With his next film, most folks assumed that Kelly had gone Hollywood by hopping aboard the remake train. The Box is a retelling of a well-loved Twilight Zone episode, which was based on a classic short story by way-awesome writer Richard Matheson. This remake, though, takes a different approach from other remakes currently clogging up theater screens. The original story and TV episode posed an intriguing moral dilemma and ended it with a surprise twist. Kelly’s film dares to explore what happens after that twist. On one hand, you could argue that this isn’t necessary, in that the twist said everything that needed to be said, and leaving the rest up to viewers’ imaginations was the smartest thing to do. On the other hand, exploring what came next, and the specifics of why and how this all happened, makes for an interesting experiment. Throughout the movie, you’re questioning why the characters have been put in this situation, how all of this is possible, and whether they can escape the fate they’ve chosen for themselves.

The ethical dilemma, which was at the heart of the original, is merely “act one” in this version, which is more concerned with what comes next. Initially, Arthur and Norma are fearful, wondering if Mr. Steward or his unnamed “employees” are around the next corner. As the story progresses, it becomes less about paranoia and more about the characters reflecting on who they are and what it is about their lives that have led them to this point. As they get farther and farther into the mystery, things get more and more surreal and dreamlike, with encounters with robot-looking strangers, talk of supernatural portals, and technology so futuristic it seems like magic. This can be good, in that it keeps viewers on edge, never knowing what’s going to happen next. It’s not as good, in that it makes the film so dense, in both plot and theme, that a lot of audiences are going to walk away confused.

Despite criticisms that Kelly is playing it safe following the descent into weirdness that was Southland Tales, it looks to me like his oddball sensibilities are still in full display. Water, or perhaps liquid, has been an ongoing theme in Kelly’s work. There were those watery psychic trail things coming out of people’s chests in Donnie Darko, and there was all that talk about using ocean currents as some kind of quantum mechanics-based fuel source in Southland Tales. Notice how the ambiguity of these topics makes them difficult to describe. The same is true for the use of water in The Box. Following the initial ethical query of the box, there are other critical choices our heroes face, with a major one having to do water. In what appears to be an homage to Kubrick’s 2001, we get pillars of water standing in for black obelisks, followed by a semi-psychedelic light show similar to the one experienced by good ol’ Dave Bowman. This journey through water has a transformative effect on one character, which comes into play during the finale. Just how transformative this is remains unclear.

Yes, Kelly’s particular brand of weirdness is on full display, but he makes time for some interesting character work. It’s revealed early on that Norma has a disfigured foot, as a result of an accident that happened when she was little. After the incident with the box, Arthur gives her a prosthetic that allows her to walk without a limp for the first time in years. This leads to an extended scene at a dinner party, where she impresses family with her ability not just to walk but to dance, and she does so with a warm smile on her face. Is the prosthetic a mask of sorts, allowing her to hide who she really is, with the box decision reflecting her real self? Later, Norma gets to confront Steward again, and she explains that she feels a connection with Steward because of his facial disfigurement. Despite what happened with the box, she’s able to reach Steward emotionally, in a way that perhaps others have not. At first, it seems that Steward’s heart melts and, combined with the whole “transformative pillars of water” thing, I thought Arthur and Norma had found a way out of the hell they’ve made for themselves. This, though, is negated at the end of the story, in which fate finally catches up with the couple, and we see a cycle of events play out as they’ve played out in the past.

If Norma is the emotional half of the couple, then Marsden’s Arthur is the intellectual, logical half. He’s the one who is skeptical about the box, going so far as to tinker with it to see how or if it works. As the story progresses, Arthur makes more and more decisions based on blind assumptions. How does he know just the right “present” to choose at the dinner party? How does he know the identity of the strange woman in the library? For that matter, why does he just show up at the library like he does? I had to rewind that part, just because I thought I had missed some plot point. But no, he just shows up there. Why does his character act the way he does? Sure, it could be lazy writing, but I’d like to give Kelly the benefit of the doubt. It could be that Kelly is going for a dreamlike, surreal tone in most of these scenes, but the movie never gets too dream sequence-ish or otherworldly that the characters don’t lose themselves to the thematic haze like the characters in, for example, Lost Highway. Instead, again giving Kelly the benefit of the doubt, I think Arthur’s assumptions could be a statement about his character, in that he’s changing from a logical intellectual to someone guided by instinct and intuition, no matter the unexplainable places those instincts guide him. By the time we reach the film’s climax, he’s made the full leap from skeptic to believer, which then puts him in place to make the final crucial decision.

Langella is clearly having fun playing the mystery man at the center of this all. The makeup/CGI combo on him really impresses. When you see him from a certain angle, it really does look like a huge chunk of his face is simply not there. Creepy. Norma says she thought Steward is “charming,” but I felt there was an underlying menace to his words. Fortunately, Langella keeps things mostly down to Earth, without going into full-on villain mode. Because so little is revealed about Steward, and what that is revealed raises more questions, it would be easy for the character to be too mysterious. Langella, though, gives him just enough humanity to keep in interesting.

For everything that is explained, there’s a lot that goes unexplained. The biggest of these, for me anyway, is the side plot about the babysitter. Who is she? She secretly wants to learn all about Arthur and his background. Why? It appears that she’s working with Steward somehow, but, given what’s revealed about Steward, shouldn’t he already know all this information she’s gathering? What’s going on with those people at her hotel? Of all the mysterious mysteries of mysteriousness in this movie, the stuff with the babysitter is the most frustrating.

Other frustrations:
• One of Norma’s students is this jerk kid who gives Arthur an important message at one point. Who is he? How does he know this stuff? Whose side is he on?
• Where did the “present” come from during the dinner party? It contains crucial information about Steward, so I doubt it was from him. But if not him, then who?
• If Donnie has superhuman strength, as evidenced by the destruction at his school, then why doesn’t he use that strength when…oops, wrong movie.

The movie is strange and ambiguous, but there’s no denying Kelly’s visual style, which makes the jump nicely onto DVD. A nighttime scene at a hangar fills the screen with blues and blacks, preceded by a bright white light, and scenes like this have some amazing clarity on screen. The sound is in a robust 5.1 surround, with the dialogue and score coming through nicely. There’s only one extra, an interview with writer Richard Matheson, bookended by remarks from Kelly. It’s interesting, but far too short. The lack of a Richard Kelly commentary really stings. Hmm…would I accept a Kelly commentary in exchange for the life of someone I don’t know? Now that’s a moral dilemma.

As I said above, taking a famous twist ending and exploring what happens after the twist is an interesting exercise. The result has some memorably dark and trippy sequences, and no shortage of interesting ideas, but it’s still unnecessary in the end, because the original twist ending really said it all. The movie’s tagline states, “You are the experiment,” but, really, the movie is the experiment. It’s a curiosity piece, an amusing game of “What if?” With that mindset, file this one under “flawed but fascinating,” and make it a rental.

The Verdict

Press the button or not, you just can’t win.

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