Love or hate the work of Richard Kelly, there is no denying this writer/director has had a huge impact on the celluloid world. 2001’s Donnie Darko was the film hundreds of movie geeks the world over had been waiting for: an utterly original dark portrayal of a troubled youth (Jake Gyllenhaal) set in the 80’s that is now a cult phenomenon. Although it borrowed motifs from other films, nobody had seen anything quite like it before. The eccentric editing and camera angles, hallucinatory sequences, and the ability to raise more questions than provide answers all added up to an unforgettable movie experience and is rich enough for many repeat viewings. His follow up Southland Tales is an apocalyptic futuristic film that received less-than-stellar attention, critically and commercially, but does have a small cadre of admirers. It is apparent that with The Box, Kelly is trying to move out of the alternative and somewhat into the mainstream.
But his definition of ‘mainstream’ is probably not what you might think. Aside from having some familiar faces (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella), this movie is utterly mired in weirdness. Based on Richard Matheson’s short piece Button, Button – things start of subtly creepy and delve into that weird and wonderful dominion where we try to decipher a challenging and complex series of intrigues like a Russian doll piece. And this is a good thing. The Box requires your unmitigated participation. Nothing is overtly ‘done to you’. It’s up to you the viewer to connect the dots and find your own way to revelation.
Norma and Arthur Lewis are happily married suburbanites in 1976 with a young son. They are awoken one night by their doorbell ringing and find nothing but a package that contains a small wooden box with a button on top. Initially, the bearer of the gift disappears, and we are slowly introduced into their lives. Author works for NASA in development; Norma is a teacher with a secret. While somewhat mundane as this progresses, I loved this aspect of it. It’s like taking a short trip inside Richard Kelly’s skull: his own father worked for NASA, and the decade is pulled off with precision: the houses, automobiles, and fashion almost induce aching nostalgia. Of course, the mysterious stranger returns, and informs the couple that if they press the button they will be awarded one million dollars tax-free. The price is that someone that they do not know will die. Simple as that. Except its not, and the consequences are more far reaching than either of them can imagine.
There is a slight carnival feel to The Box. Like King’s Needful Things we have the dark, forbidding stranger that is almost gentlemanly in nature but isn’t altogether human. If you’re familiar with Donnie Darko and Southland Tales you’ll see many of the same faces from those films. Toward the end the same effects are ratcheted up as we cross into other realms of experience. There’s a touch of humor … and the feeling of being in suburbia but ensconced in the otherworldly is hard to describe. Performances are solid, especially those of Cameron Diaz and Frank Langella. The music (composed entirely by Arcade Fire), is used to fantastic effect and becomes a pivotal part of the crescendo toward the end.
Before The Box terminates from our screens, I feel it wise to have one more screening. Richard Kelly has obviously designed it this way and there is still so much to explore …