Monday, April 5, 2010

The Box

Love or hate the work of Richard Kelly, there is no denying this writer/director has had a huge impact on cinema. 2001’s Donnie Darko was the film hundreds of film geeks the world over had been clamouring for: an utterly original dark portrayal of a troubled youth (Jake Gyllenhaal) set in the eighties that is now a cult phenomenon. Although it borrowed a few motifs, nobody had quite seen anything 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 experience that is rich enough for many repeat viewings. Kelly's follow up, Southland Tales, was an apocalyptic excursion that received less-than-stellar attention, critically and commercially, yet does have a small cadre of admirers. It is apparent that with The Box, Kelly is attempting somewhat to shift into the mainstream.   

But his definition of ‘mainstream’ is probably not what you think. Aside from having some familiar faces (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella), The Box is utterly mired in weirdness. Based on Richard Matheson’s short piece Button, Button – things start off subtly then proceed to delve into that weird and wonderful Darko dominion; a complex series of intrigues like a Russian Doll piece. And this is a good thing. The Box requires your unmitigated participation and imagination. Nothing is overtly ‘done to you’. Ultimately it's up to the viewer to connect the dots and find your way to revelation.

Norma and Arthur Lewis are happily married suburbanites in 1976 with a young son. One night, they are awoken by their doorbell to find nothing but a package containing a small wooden box complete with button. Initially, the gift-bearer vanishes, and we are slowly introduced into the couple's lives. Authur works for NASA in development; Norma is a teacher with a secret. While a somewhat mundane progression, I loved this aspect of it ... because we're taking a short trip inside Richard Kelly’s skull: his own father worked for NASA, and the decade is pulled off with precision.  Houses, automobiles, and fashion; all of it enough to induce 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? Someone 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 gentlemanly in nature but not altogether human. If you’re familiar with Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, you’ll see many of the same faces from both films. Toward the end, similar effects are ratcheted up as we cross into other realms of experience. There’s a touch of humour … and the feeling of being simultaneously in suburbia yet ensconced in the otherworldly is a welcome duality. Performances are solid, especially those of Diaz and Langella. The score (composed entirely by Arcade Fire), is used to fantastic effect and becomes a pivotal part of a stunning climax.

While not containing the mythic and enduring quality of Darko, The Box is still a reputable effort in Kelly's envious oeuvre.