Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Movie Review: The Box

The Box ** ½
Directed By:
Richard Kelly.
Written By: Richard Kelly based on the short story by Richard Matheson.
Starring: Cameron Diaz (Norma Lewis), James Marsden (Arthur Lewis), Frank Langella (Arlington Steward), James Rebhorn (Norm Cahill), Holmes Osborne (Dick Burns), Sam Oz Stone (Walter Lewis), Gillian Jacobs (Dana), Celia Weston (Lana Burns), Deborah Rush (Clymene Steward).

With his third feature, director Richard Kelly has proven that he can make a mainstream film without compromising his vision. Like his first two films, Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, The Box is an interesting film, that takes twists and turns that take the audience to places we didn’t expect when the movie started. But like his last film, Southland Tales, The Box’s reach exceeds its grasp. It is an ambitious film by a director who is trying to do something different. But he tries perhaps too hard, and forces the movie to go places that it probably shouldn’t. And because this is a mainstream film, it is also means he has to wrap itself in a way that will be satisfying to a mass audience. With Southland Tales he went way over the top, and did it brilliantly in places and not so brilliantly in others, but I admired the film’s audaciousness. I admire The Box to a lesser extent.

Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are a couple living paycheck to paycheck in the 1970s. She is a part time teacher and he works at NASA whose dreams of being an astronaut have just been dashed. The bills are piling up, and they do not know what to do. Then one day, a strange package is delivered to their door. The box contains a wooden podium with a giant red button on top. It also contains a note that tells them that Mr. Steward will visit them at 5:00 that night. True to his word, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) shows up that night. He is a hideous facial deformity that is impossible not to stare at. Norma feels sympathy for him - she has a deformed foot, and is self conscious enough about that. If she had to go through life with it on her face, she does not know what she would do. Mr. Steward makes them Norma an offer. If she presses the button in the next 24 hours, he will give them $1 million tax free. The catch is that if they press the button, someone in the world they do not know will die.

Based on a short story by Richard Matheson, the film poses an interesting moral question. Can you press the button knowing that if you do someone will die? Does it matter that it is someone who you do not know? It could be a murderer, child molester or an old person who has already lived a full life. Then again, it could be an innocent child or someone else who doesn’t deserve to die. But then again, the money could certainly help anyone out. $1 million is a lot money now, but imagine just how much that would be in 1976 dollars. Can you resist the temptation?

The Matheson story is brilliant in its simplicity. It is short, makes its point, and ends all within about 20 pages. Out of necessity, the movie needs to expand on the story. The film essentially takes the short story and uses it as its first act (minus the brutally effective ending), and then goes from there. Unlike the story, the movie feels the need to explain the secrets of the movie, the origin of the box and the everything else in the movie. Audiences expect this from movies, and I’m sure The Box will be more satisfying to many audiences than Donnie Darko or Southland Tales did, but for me, explaining away the secrets make the movie far less interesting. Not only does it take the mystery out of the film, but the explanation that Kelly comes up with, makes it less interesting. The film’s final act is a mess of special effects and heady explanations, and its when I started to tune out.

It must be said the cast is uniformly solid. Diaz has certainly grown from the time where she was cast as simple eye candy, and turned herself into a real actress. She is the one with the biggest moral question thrust upon her, and she handles that, and the rest of the movie with intelligence. Even as the movie spirals out of control, she remains a constant. James Marsden has also improved drastically since he was the most boring X-Men. He has become one of the most dependable actors around. And Frank Langella is wonderful as Steward. He is mysterious and frightening, and as the movie goes along, he becomes more complex. It is a great role that starts off villainously, and moves on from there.

The film is also well made by Kelly. He effortlessly recreates the 1970s, and gives the film a wonderful dark look. Even if the last act is full of special effects, he integrates them well into the fabric of the rest of the visual look.
But The Box is not quite as good as it should have been. Had Kelly perhaps stuck by his guns a little more, and kept the film a little more mysterious, then the film could have been one of the best thrillers of the year. As it stands, it is still a decent thriller, with some wonderful elements. But unlike Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, The Box is a film that only needs to be seen once. The mystery just isn’t there.

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