In the interview with Richard Kelly I published last night, I told him that I feel like “The Box” is the best film he’s made so far. Of course, he’s only made three movies, so it’s not a wide-ranging comparison. Still, considering how wobbly “Southland Tales” was overall, it’s important for Kelly as a filmmaker to see him bring his not-inconsiderable visual command to bear on a story that works on its own terms, start to finish.
“The Box” is adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson, one of the greatest of the “Twilight Zone” era short story writers. He was an amazing concept man, and “Button, Button” is a very smart short story, suggesting a moral dilemma and setting some intriguing ideas in motion, but never overstaying its welcome. The story has been adapted before, as an episode from one of the revivals of “TZ,” and it’s really no surprise that someone would eventually get back around to turning it into a film. It’s such a simple, smart hook, and it offers fairly unlimited potential for invention since Matheson suggests rather than spells out.
At its heart, “The Box” is a story about morality. I think most people like to think of themselves as good people. Moral people. People who make choices that other people would also consider decent and good. It’s rare that I meet someone who takes pleasure in being amoral, or who can’t defend their world view as a matter of perspective. I’ve always believed that the only way you can write a truly great and memorable villain in a film is by writing them as if they believe themselves to be the hero of the story. It’s easy to be moral when you’re talking about hypothetical situations or word games, removed from any real-world consequence, but it’s a lot more telling when people are placed in situations where their actions have effects, and those effects carry real moral heft.
That’s why I think “The Box” is so compelling at the set-up. A young couple, Arthur and Norma Lewis (played by James Marsden and Cameron Diaz), are approached by a mysterious man, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who offers them what seems to be a crazy choice: if they push a button on a box that he leaves with them for 24 hours, they will be given $1 million in cash, tax-free, and the only thing that will happen is that somewhere in the world, someone they don’t know will die.
Consider that choice yourself. Especially in a moment of economic insecurity like we’re all experiencing right now, that $1 million is temptation incarnate. Who couldn’t use a safety net like that? I’ve been very fortunate in my adult life in terms of money earned, and I’m generally able to provide for my family, but every month, we face challenges, and every month, I wish for some way to kick my income to another level, something where I would be able to count on something like security. If I didn’t have to look someone in the eye, and I thought there would be no repercussions, I’m ashamed to admit that it would be very difficult for me to not push that button. All I’d be able to think about would be the freedom that money would offer me, the room to breathe that it represents. People die all day, all over the world, and there’s nothing I can do to stem that tide, so one more person as a faceless statistic would realistically mean less to me than security for my family and the ability for me to focus on the things I love creatively.
Let’s be honest, though… there is no such thing as an action without repercussion, and when the stakes are as high as life or death, then the equal and opposite reaction is something to fear. The film only uses the question of “would you or wouldn’t you?” to kick things off, and it’s a bit of a red herring. As much as Arthur and Norma are our way into the film, Arlington Steward is the real key to everything, and it’s a good thing Richard Kelly cast Frank Langella in the role, because he creates a fairly indelible impression as this enigma with a ruined face. In a brief pre-credit screen, Kelly offers up an incident at NASA involving the Mars probe that holds the key to the entire movie, and for the first time in Kelly’s work, all of the answers to what is happening onscreen are actually included in the film, explicitly in some cases. The film is still structured in a way that makes much of what you watch mysterious, but there’s nothing in it that feels arbitrary or random. There is purpose in the bizarre nature of what you see onscreen, and by the end of the film, I think everything’s been explained to some degree. That alone marks this as a big step forward for Richard, and that’s not to say I feel like everything in every movie has to be overexplained… I just think that Kelly has painted himself into a corner, perception-wise, and it’s important to him as a filmmaker with a long-term career that he demonstrate some facility for the linear.
Kelly gets very good work out of James Marsden and, as mentioned, Langella, and I think Marsden is one of those guys who worked for years before the town finally figured him out, meaning he’s just been getting the sorts of roles where he shines in the last few years. Before that, everyone seemed to want to fit him into a box as the bland, affable, jock lead in movies. Lately, though, Marsden has been playing parts that give him some quirk, some dimension, that allow him to play more than just his looks. Arthur and Norma are both good people, struggling to make a good life, and that’s what makes them perfect targets for Steward and his test. Because they are both rife with decency, there is nothing easy about the choices they make. Arthur, in particular, takes an almost psychedelic personal journey in the wake of that button being pushed, and at each step, Marsden does his best to show you how hard it is for Arthur, to make sure that nothing about the film feels glib or simple. Cameron Diaz, who I feel has a very narrow range as an actor, pushes herself as hard as I’ve ever seen from her, but she’s still not ideal as Norma. I don’t feel like she allows you inside to feel the effects of the decisions the way Marsden does. Her performance feels more rooted on the surface, and it’s one of the major weaknesses of the film. Norma has a physical imperfection that makes her sympathetic to Arlington Steward’s initial come-on, but I never felt like Diaz made it real. Instead, we’re told about the deformity and we’re given a good long look at it, but its effects on Norma never really seem to matter.
I normally hate when people sum up movies by joining two titles with the word “meets,” but in this case, I think “The Box” functions as a perfect hybrid of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.” There’s the idea of someone putting people through an elaborate, confusing, unnerving test in order to figure out who is possessed of strong moral fiber, and there’s also the creeping paranoia of ordinary people suddenly under the control of a truly alien intelligence, in service of some secret agenda. There are a number of images and moments in the film that are very creepy, but I wouldn’t call this a horror film at all. There are some truly heady ideas floated here about space, colonization, and quantum mechanics, but I wouldn’t really call this a SF film, either. In the end, what matters most in “The Box” are the choices people make. This is a human drama, a social experiment wrapped up in genre clothing, and although I didn’t think the second half works as well as the first half, there are enough genuinely good things about “The Box” to at least suggest it’s worth a viewing. Steven Poster’s chilly photography, the Bernard Hermann-esque score by the Arcade Fire, the quiet malice of Frank Langella… knowing that these things lie within “The Box,” why wouldn’t you take a chance and open it?
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