The Box is Kelly’s third film and follows the glorious angst-ridden time twister of Donnie Darko and the visually stunning Southland Tales, a post apocalyptic mess of identity and ideas. The Box deals with the slow burning personal apocalypse of two suburbanites, Norma and Arthur (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), who suffer a sudden loss of fortune and are perplexed when a small package arrives early one morning anonymously which, when opened, contains the titular box. Later that day the ominous figure of Arlington Steward, the owner of the box, appears to offer the couple a choice: open the box and push the button to receive a million dollars, the only catch is that someone, somewhere else in the world, someone they don’t know, will die.
The story by Richard Matheson was successfully adapted (with a significantly altered, and far better, ending) for the Twilight Zone TV series. The story ends with the couple pushing the button and the Steward character returning to collect the box, handing over the money and assuring the couple that the box will be passed on to someone else, someone they do not know. It’s a perfect Twilight Zone fable and the brilliance is of leaving us (and the doomed couple) wondering what happens next.
In adapting Matheson’s story Kelly offers us his explanation of what happens next, and expands the landscape of the story significantly, drawing on his own childhood to bring in NASA’s Viking landing on Mars as Kelly’s father worked at NASA at the time.
What follows is a studio thriller unlike any other, and while the production design and outstanding Hermann-esque score from members of the band Arcade Fire contribute to a tense atmosphere the film is let down by a convoluted narrative which, like Southland Tales in particular, isn’t given any cohesion thereby dispelling the necessary tension.
The fateful line delivered by Frank Langella’s morose and unearthly Arlington Steward that the box with the button, now pressed, would pass to someone they do not know, is given no weight at all, and I’m not sure if it was the script or the superfluous character traits of Diaz’s Norma that made it seem as though she was acting the whole time, but I wasn’t convinced there was any dilemma, nor any real emotional consequences – everything that happens as a result of the button being pressed is just a series of events which confuse.
It is unfortunate that much of the tension and impact of the events was dispelled as my audience broke into disbelieving laughs on occasion, but as we were pulled through the quagmire of the unveiling of the larger conspiracy the focus on the family in the centre was lost, thus when the ending came (eventually – it seemed to jump from one plot thread to the next) it lacked any significance, emotional or intellectual.
I’m a fan of Kelly’s work and I love that he got to make this film, in the studio system for a big budget with established box office stars, but I can’t see it happening again for a while. There were moments in the film that broke any investment I made with the film (the bit when a character emerges from an aircraft hanger inexplicably, the hypnotised zombie dance troupe following Arthur in a library all the time looking as if they’d burst into song) and at the end, when they have to make a decision to save their son you never get the feeling that they ever cared about him as very little time was given to that relationship. And when the whole film balances at the end on the relationship of the parents and their child more care should have been taken to build that relationship up – as a result it ends without any emotion other than relief.
Whether it was intentional or not, Kelly has perfectly replicated not only the look of 1970s suburban America but also the filming style of the time. Slow zooms mix with low and high close ups, and while the pacing of the film is a huge problem the film looks authentic and is an example of Kelly’s versatile directorial style.
It is a brave attempt to encompass the smallest family unit in a huge, otherworldly story and as we find out more about the entity controlling the unfolding grand plan the story disintegrates and is not pulled together by the end. The paranoia is tangible, but is eventually cloaked with the feeling that Richard Kelly knows far more about this story than we do, and has chosen to lead us through this journey showing us only what he wants us to see, and leaving some necessary clues by the wayside.
The Stepford Wives this is not. A great story writ large over a fragmented canvas, and I got the feeling that we, the audience, are the first to step back and see the end result for what it is.