Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Box


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 d├ęcor 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.

14 comments

  1. You thought Donnie Darko was just being weird for weirds sake?

    Though, thats a completely valid way of making a film, I dont think Darko was like that. Everything had an explenation, weird for weirds sake would something like like Lynch's Lost Highway.

    The Box had many religious undertones. Im not religious at all, but I picked up on them right away!

    Heres a run down of religious allusions in the film (spoilers ahead if you havent seen the movie!)

    The red box served the same purpose that the forbidden fruit did in Eden. The woman is the one who presses the button, just like Eve is the one that eats of the forbidden fruit first.

    Langellas character is god, putting the temptation in front of them to see if they will bite. Of course they do, and so they have to pay. Same as humanity has had to pay, because Eve bit the forbidden fruit.

    The weird nose bleeding people are the same as religious followers, the choice Marsden has to take was either Heaven or Hell (apparently he momentarily teleports himself to heaven because he describes it as something so wonderful...

    Their kid has to pay for their sin, just like humanity has had to pay because Adam and Eve (according to the bible humanities parents, bit the fruit and sinned.

    Diaz and Marsden react all worried that Langella's character didnt like them, but maybe he did cause he laughed, maybe he likes them...but that worry is similar to how people need to have gods approval, so they wont be punished or be made to pay.

    And then theres that scene where they are asking Langella if they can repent for what they did, to which he replies, you have to pay for what you did, just the way the bible teaches about sin.

    There are many parallels between this movie and religious beliefs. Loved it for that! Plus theres that sci-fi angle....and Aurthur C. Clarkes quote...means, whatever we dont understand will be no different then magic to us.

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  2. @The Film Connoisseur,

    With all due respect, the religious concepts attached to the Edenic motif are something I'm not sure Kelly should be throwing out there as complicated subtext unless the film is aimed at high schoolers.

    THE BOX is a film that sacrifices the power of Matheson's simple concept to create an overstuffed sausage of piecemeal ideas, none developed fully enough to actually allow you to find anything deeply meaningful to get caught up in. It's like Kelly is saying, "Look how smart and cool I am because I have all these neat theories." But ultimately none of these shallow half-thoughts stick. After having seen it, one feels like they skimmed through a CLIFF'S NOTES of some overwrought sci-fi story.

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  3. "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."

    This is exactly how I feel about Kelly's magnum opus SOUTHLAND TALES which wants to be so many different things that it can't quite settle on anything but is still a fantastic mess of a film.

    I am curious to see THE BOX and your review is one of a few positives I've read that has me intrigued. But you're right, the guy needs a screenwriting partner or an editor to keep him in check - he seems to be a very unfocused writer. He's got a great eye for detail and has the directing thing nailed down, just needs to work on his scripts a little more.

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  4. I like many of the points you have to make, but I have to disagree on one crucial issue, The Box for me is a film I like better the more I think about it.

    For comparison here's my mixed theatrical review:
    http://thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/2009/11/box.html

    Against my positive DVD one:
    http://thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/2009/07/southland-tales-year-after-apocalypse.html

    Its a film that needs time to percolate, but I find it a more rewarding experience on each return.

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  5. Aye, Mr. Wilson, this film has grown on me since I saw it on a raint weekday night months ago at our local multiplex. There are some brilliant ideas, and even a scattered screenplay can't erase the though-provoking nature of this material. Mt theatrical viewing elicited a split reaction, but a subsequent viewing on DVD has enhanced it.
    I had to wait till the very end to get your summary judgement, but I enjoyed the revisitation here and the excellent references. I suspect down the road this will indeed be seen as a film cracking second-helping ten best list!

    Superlative essay!

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  6. TFC:

    I did think Donnie Darko was mostly weird for the sake of being weird. Perhaps the wormhole theories and the "science" of that film went way over my head, but by the time the film was over I really wasn't interested in going back and trying to unlock the mystery. I scratched my head more than I grinned during Darko, and even though it has a star-making performance from Jake Gyllenhaal I couldn't get over the fact that the movie was just a lot of non-sequiturs. At least the non-sequiturs in The Box amused the hell out of me and kept me more than entertained throughout.

    One thing Kelly does extremely well in Darko and The Box is evoke a very specific feel with the way he shoots his film to the way his production designers masterfully get things right with sets and costumes. I just think the man needs ANYONE with half a brain to rein him in.

    All the religious symbolism you bring up in The Box is obviously there (I even mention it briefly), but I think one of the problems is that he so overtly puts it out there. Sure, it's a lot of fun, but it would have been immensely more impressive had he kept everything as subtext; sometimes that's hard to do with a symbol as obvious as the one in this film, but he didn't have to go explain every metaphor...

    All that being said: I still really liked this movie. It was a fun, spooky and cerebral horror film.

    Thanks for the comment!

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  7. Tony:

    I love your entire comment here --

    THE BOX is a film that sacrifices the power of Matheson's simple concept to create an overstuffed sausage of piecemeal ideas, none developed fully enough to actually allow you to find anything deeply meaningful to get caught up in. It's like Kelly is saying, "Look how smart and cool I am because I have all these neat theories." But ultimately none of these shallow half-thoughts stick. After having seen it, one feels like they skimmed through a CLIFF'S NOTES of some overwrought sci-fi story.

    You know, it's hard to even disagree with you here, yet I find myself defending this film because I said so much fin watching it, and because Kelly just kind of throws everything out there. It's definitely a lot more interesting than the Sci-fi stories that play it safe; and yes, even though this is an extremely neutered version of Matheson's story it still works for me because I think the themes Kelly goes for are audacious enough to keep his rather thin add-ons to Matheson interesting.

    I agree with you that religious stuff is too overt to be considered "great" symbolism, and I also agree with you that he seems like a guy very pleased with how smart he is, and he's content on showing his intelligence at the expense of a coherent story arc...but damn it...I still liked this movie...a lot, hehe. Go figure.

    It's one of those movies (and I think we all have one of these) that I can't deny any refutation of its merit, yet I find myself defending it because I can't deny the great time I had watching it and the skill that went into the aesthetic of the film.

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  8. J.D.:

    I hope you check it out. As I explained to Tony above, it's a weird film in that I can totally understand the hate for the film, but I just had too good of a time watching it and I can't deny that experience. The look of the film is great too in evoking a kind of classical horror. David Denby even mentioned in his New Yorker review that Kelly COULD be the next Hitchcock if he could find someone to rein in his ideas. Sounds like we're all in agreement about that.

    Thanks as always for the visit.

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  9. Bryce:

    I think you're getting my feelings about Donnie Darko confused with my feelings for The Box. One of the things I liked about the film was that it did indeed make me want to go and revisit it...Darko did not.

    I agree that the more time passes after watching the film the more I think about it. It's a silly film, ultimately, but I found it extremely entertaining.

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  10. Sam:

    Thanks as always for the visit and the comment. I look forward to watching this film again with some friends, a few beers, and a lot of good natured "philosophizing" in the room. It's one of those films I can enjoy seriously based on its aesthetic merit, but as Tony pointed out above, Kelly gets in way over his head with all of the big ideas he has floating above this movie...but I think that part of it makes it kind of fun as a group movie. It the film was tighter and more theoretically condensed I wouldn't has a second thought about putting it in my top 10.

    I know Keith Ulrich had it number 9 on his list last year, so the film does have its serious defenders. I'm only kind of there...hehe.

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  11. You know, it's hard to even disagree with you here, yet I find myself defending this film because I said so much fin watching it, and because Kelly just kind of throws everything out there.

    I can understand. I found a lot of it fun, too. But for me it was all in the actors' performances. Marsden, Diaz and Langella were all great, as was the supporting cast (down to the creepy waiter guy played by the dude who sings the Coca Cola jingle before the movie rolls when you're waiting at the theater). Kelly can direct the shit out of his actors.

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  12. Tony:

    Wow, I think I had a little too much scotch in my coffee this morning...sorry about the typos. I'm glad you were able to decipher that sentence, hehe. I agree with you about Kelly's ability to direct his actors. I too liked that creepy waiter. I remember during the classroom scene where he needles Diaz into showing the class her deformed foot I couldn't help but laugh because I was so uncomfortable. It reminded me a lot of some of the really memorable creepy moments from Donnie Darko, which was also aided by bizarre acting that evoked an eerie mood.

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  13. @TonyDayoub: I didnt think the film was "deep" in anyway either, actually, I thought it was simplistic in execution.

    On my post I was simply pointing out the films religious allusions, thats all.

    Even thought the movie wasnt "deep" or anything, it did touch upon some moral issues that were interesting, and it had that sci-fi edge to it that I found fun.

    I was expecting a royal dud, yet I got a fun, eerie, weird movie, that wasnt too out there.

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  14. I too thoroughly enjoyed THE BOX, Kevin, and part of the reason is that it does, much like SOUTHLAND TALES, throw all kinds of things into the mix.

    It never feels the need to 'restrain' itself from tackling all the implications of its set-up. It's funny, disturbing, moving...

    I wrote a little piece on it recently here:

    http://checkingonmysausages.blogspot.com/2010/05/box-2009-notes.html

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