Richard Kelly's attempt at an enigmatic morality play with The Box is about as frustrating a masterpiece as you're bound to come across. Here's a film that feels like it's easily one of the best films of the year as you're watching it, but when you go back to think about what it was you just watched you tend to be more amazed that the story didn't collapse under all of the weight Kelly puts on it by dipping his toes into so many deep themes that range from the sociological to the political and theological to existential. Even though it seems Kelly has bitten off more than he can chew here (what else is new) I still admire him for what is on the screen: a sleek thriller that evokes a creepy, ethereal mood that is more interested in slow-building dread than making you jump put of your seat with false scares. There's something masterful – and dare I say Hitchcockian – about the way Kelly can elicit suspense out of the most banal moments in The Box.
The film is one big allegory about free will and the loss of community as Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, who surprisingly did not suck here) are offered 1 million dollars by a strange man with half a face to push a button…if they do then somewhere, someone that they don't know will die. The man is Arlington Steward (wonderfully played by Frank Langella), and we're informed from some onscreen text in the form of an NSA memo that opens the film that he has escaped with a box that has great powers which he has delivered to the Lewis'. This of course troubles the couple who are concerned only briefly about the moral implications of someone they don't know dying (this leads to an interesting conversation at the dinner table where the two sit around the box and discuss who they really "know") as the conversation then moves to them being financially secure and caring for their son. But it's not that simple. The Lewis' don't really need the money, but they need it in the sense that they have overextended themselves financially and are living way beyond their means; so, if they choose to continue to live "comfortably" the way they do then they must push the button and take the money. It's that Kelly is making his largest and most overt point: when is having a loving wife, or husband, and a smart kid and a nice house enough to be happy? He doesn't make the affluent Lewis' amoral jerks who we're glad to see get their comeuppance (and boy do they…I mean when I man with half a face offers you this kind of deal you know something bad is going to happen); rather, they seem like normal people who were easily swept up in the status wars of the 70's (and what would only grow bigger in the 80's) Boomers who equated "stuff" with "success".
That's the crux of the film…of course I won't get into too much detail about what happens after Norma decides to push the button, but needless to say some bad – and extremely bizarre – stuff starts to happen in the Lewis' Virginia town. The film has great 70's art direction (by Alec Hammond and Tracey A. Doyle) as the décor masterfully evokes the kind of me-first, financially overextended lifestyles of these characters and the gaudy houses they inhabited. And the cinematography by Steven Poster is some of the best, and most appropriate, looking since 2007's Zodiac with its high-key lighting and understanding that things are often scarier when held in long shot (he did the same thing with Donnie Darko). The music is also hauntingly subtle (by members of the rock band The Arcade Fire) and one of the real aesthetic highlights of the film. The performances by Diaz and Marsden as the Lewis' are great too as they add weight to an otherwise black and white conundrum; a conundrum that Kelly seems more interested in an either/or, Old Testament look at morality than a both/and…which is a shame because the latter almost always makes for better drama, but the actors make the best of it anyway.
As mentioned earlier there's a lot going on here, and at times it seems pretty clear that Kelly's film buckles under all of the weight he's putting on it (the guy really needs to hire a screenwriting partner), but amazingly, just when we think the film is going nowhere, Kelly keeps things interesting enough throughout the film with a beautiful (or creepy) shot, or ethereal scenes in banal locations (a library has never seemed so scary) that reminded me of some of the best European horror from the 70's (especially the Italians); or he'll toss out another interesting idea that keeps us energized for the next 20 minutes. I just think that it's painstakingly clear that this film, based on a short story "Button, Button" by Robert Matheson, would have worked best as a short film (it was filmed for "The Twilight Zone" in the 80's, and indeed the short story ends at about the 30-40 minute point of the film, from that point on it's all Kelly) instead of the near-two hour film it is.
There are essentially four major ideas Kelly is going for here: Theologically the box is free will, and whether or not we think our choices have an effect on others we're blind to the fact that we're all connected, so that when the Lewis' push the button the next couple that pushes the button is the unknown person that dies. They're still involved whether they think about it or not (there's a very obvious scene where Arthur is told by his babysitter that he has blood on his hand…not so subtle, but it works nevertheless). It speaks to the larger theme of loss of community which segues nicely into the Sociological theme where the box is the symbol for the degradation of community. These characters live in boxes that are logistically close; however, they really don't "know" their neighbors and are only worried about themselves (unfortunately there's a moment where Kelly feels the need to spell all of this out when Steward explains about all the "boxes" of our lives to an NSA agent). Existentially the obvious link here is Kelly's use of Sartre's No Exit as a primary metaphor throughout as Norma teaches it to her class, her school performs the play, it's written on their windshield in a creepy moment, and literally at the end in a crucial and creepy scene in a library Arthur can't find an exit. It's also a pretty obvious metaphor for their house – their box– being their purgatory like the hotel room in Sartre's play. Politically there seem to be some pretty obvious Bush parallels here and a denouement that those who voted for the man (twice) are responsible for all of his actions. You can't have voted for Bush and his administration and then say you were shocked by the war and that something like that is not what you voted for. To Kelly they're all connected, and again this seems a bit limiting, antiquated, and immature (but it's him movie so what the hell, right), but you have a clear choice in his world, and for Kelly you live with the consequences of your choice.
Kelly is an interesting filmmaker who needs someone that can rein him in. He's a little too full of himself and little too much into his up-in-the-sky metaphysical storylines; however, the audacity of Kelly, and perhaps the belief of his own hype after the overrated Donnie Darko is probably what makes The Box so damn entertaining. The film is ambitious and has a big studio look with a reckless, auteur spirit behind it. And even though the film, at times, meanders too much with its creepy non-sequiturs (seriously…what's up with the dude in the Santa suit in the middle of nowhere), and even though it's a shame that Kelly felt the need to explain things away at the 90 minute mark, I had a lot more fun with the odd Invasion of the Body Snatchers type sci-fi story of The Box than I did with the weird for the sake of being weird wormhole sci-fi head scratcher that was Donnie Darko. It's a flawed masterpiece, but sometimes aren't those the most interesting kind? It's the only one of Kelly's films so far that has actually confused me to the point where I want to go back and watch it, and I think depending on which day you ask me I would consider The Box – warts and all – one of the best films of 2009.