Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Box

The Box (directed by Richard Kelly, distributed by Warner Bros., 2009)

Think of The Box as a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. It has the same preoccupation with moral dilemmas and with powerful outside agencies manipulating the fate of mere mortals. It successfully delivers the same spooky chills. Its central characters are cut from the same cardboard, standing in for everyman and everywoman.

In 1976, an ordinary couple, Norma and Arthur (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), are presented with a box with a button on top. If they press the button someone they don’t know will die and they will receive a million dollars. Offering the box is the horribly disfigured Mr. Steward (Frank Langella). After Mr. Steward departs the couple discusses the proposition. Arthur opens the box. There is nothing inside. Eventually, on impulse, Norma presses the button. Elsewhere in town we learn a woman has been killed. Norma’s decision leads to an even more troubling moral dilemma at the climax of the movie.

Near the end of the movie another couple is given the box. The wife impulsively pushes the button, establishing that there are a string of three women who have pushed the button, succumbing to temptation. Each couple is expelled, like Adam and Eve, from their safe, ordinary lives.

Mr. Steward, injured in a lightning strike, is the enigmatic representative for “those who control the lightning.” The character is played with a wonderful otherworldly seriousness by Langella. Steward exhibits posthuman, near magical abilities. Twice the film references Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The film seems to view this as an excuse not to make any effort to explain the advanced technology on display.

An example of this technology is the three columns of liquid from which Arthur must choose. He makes the correct choice and he is transported several feet above the bed he shares with Norma, where she is at that moment resting. She must dodge quickly out of the way as Arthur and many gallons of water arrive nearly on top of her, in an odd rebirth.

While there are numerous loose ends, the story is involving and thought provoking. Still, as one imagines Richard Kelly is tired of hearing, it’s not up to the level of Kelly’s first feature, Donnie Darko (2001). Donnie Darko was especially adroit at quickly presenting several complex and sympathetic characters. We rarely get close to the characters in The Box, and when the opportunity arises they don’t fully engage our sympathy. The result is an abstract puzzle and the audience is left to fit some of the pieces.

The movie is based on the Richard Matheson short story, “Button, Button” (1970), and was adapted as a Twilight Zone episode which aired during a revival of the television series in 1986.

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