Directed by Richard Kelly
Anyone expecting Donnie Darko and Southland Tales director Richard Kelly to finally dial back on his idiosyncrasies in service of a familiar conceit may be surprised to find his peculiar voice very much present in The Box, his third feature. Where initial reports suggested a fairly conventional take on the Twilight Zone-tackled Richard Matheson story “Button, Button,” we instead get a warped morality tale dripping with style and jutting out with potential energy in every direction – for better and worse.
Cameron Diaz and X-Men‘s James Marsden star as Norma and Arthur Lewis, a loving married couple living in Langley, Virginia in 1976, where Arthur works for NASA on their Mars technology and Norma teaches. They’re both staring down at financial crises on the day a mysterious stranger (Frank Langella) with a huge facial scar arrives on their doorstep, his appearance preceded by the arrival of a black box with a red button under a glass dome. He informs them that is they press the button, someone they do not know will die – and they’ll receive a million dollars in cash. That’s where the “Button, Button” similarities end.
The Box shares with Kelly’s other features a fixation on shadowy government entities, endless plot twists, scads of peripheral characters, and a conspiratorial bent. Thankfully, the go-for-broke genre mishmash approach of Southland Tales – and the loss of genuine character work that came with it – has been jettisoned here, and the result is Kelly’s most tonally consistent film yet. The digital photography is lush and detailed, though the digital effects that crop up around the three-quarter makr are dodgy at best, with a distinctly unfinished feel. It also shares (with Darko specifically) his fondness for depicting suburban life as a coded maze of some kind, even as his dialogue sometimes verges on cheese territory.
Just when it seems like the film is ready to fly completely off the rails – be it with the umpteenth plot contortion, a forced scene, or silly CGI – Kelly’s grasp of atmosphere and pacing keep your interest. Kelly’s emotional investment in the material is also in evidence here – Diaz and Marsden’s characters are based on Kelly’s parents, and the result is one of the more genuine onscreen pairings than we’ve seen from a Hollywood film in some time (despite Diaz’s overbearing Southern accent). Kelly treats them as individuals sharing a set of difficult decisions, and not just a unit we take for granted thanks to their wedding bands, and it’s deeply refreshing.
There’s also some fine work from Frank Langella as the mysterious gift-bearer with half of his face missing, who alternates between blank indifference and seeming empathy for our leads, and a welcome third appearance from stalwart Kelly player Holmes Osborne, this time as Diaz’s father. The most crucial supporting character, however, is Langley itself, the town Kelly grew up in, which is portrayed here as the secret center of American life. That it houses an arm of NASA, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, does much to explain Kelly’s obsession with invisible power, but it also helps to ground this deeply illogical film in a certain paranoid reality. The eeire, Herrmann-esque score, supplied by members of the Arcade Fire, doesn’t hurt.
While it’s certainly true that viewers without patience for Kelly’s cinematic language won’t find anything here to like, and the occasionally hammy melodrama and cheap effects undercut its effectiveness at times, The Box is a thankfully terse reaffirmation of his unique talents.