It’s tempting to say that writer-director Richard Kelly’s The Box isn’t a great film and be done with it, as if that were all there were to discuss, but that would miss the larger point of Kelly’s existence: He isn’t setting out to make great films, but interesting ones that also try to be good, and their quality is derived precisely from the fact that they’re often so confounding, so aloof, so willing to remain unsolved. That’s not to say The Box sacrifices force for aim. It may not be a great film, but it’s certainly a good one. It’s a speedy and wonderfully claustrophobic thriller, one that calls to mind the suspense-filled potboilers of a bygone era as well as the work of everyone from Hitchcock to Lynch. Kelly is coolly efficient at establishing an atmosphere of real dread, and there are horrific reveals that create genuine, unsettling terror in an age when too many genre directors lean on cheap jump-scares and loud music. But the bottom line is that Kelly’s ultimately made another circuitous, willfully confusing sci-fi film that’s as eager to please the cult that embraced his Donnie Darko as it is reluctant to be a prettily wrapped package. The Box is a fine film to worry over, to return to just to relive the simple and often pleasing experience of not quite knowing what’s going on.
Kelly’s screenplay is based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button,” though the plot borrows both from the short story and the adaptation made in 1985 for “The Twilight Zone” before going off on its own. The essence of the short story is this: A husband and wife are presented with a mysterious locked box with a button on top and visited by an intimidating stranger who tells them that if they push the button, it will cause the death of someone they don’t know, but they’ll also be financially rewarded. It’s a tight little morality tale, and rather than stretch it to feature length, Kelly wisely uses it as a springboard for a larger, sprawling sci-fi tale. In the film, it’s 1976, and the central couple is Arthur (James Marsden) and Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz), raising their young son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), on the money they scrape together from her job teaching at Walter’s school and his work as a tech at NASA’s Langley Research Center. They wake to the doorbell early one morning to find the titular box and enclosed button unit on their porch. Later that day, Norma gets a visit from Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), an imposing man with a chunk of his face missing and knotted in scar tissue, who offers her $1 million if she decides to push the button. These early scenes are plain masterful for the way Kelly lets a sense of otherworldly mystery slowly build, augmented by an arch, string-heavy score courtesy of Arcade Fire members Win Butler and Regine Chassagne with Owen Pallett. Kelly’s a big fan of the slow camera push, allowing the tone and content of the story to dictate the emotion instead of rapid, misleading cuts.
Kelly plays out the string on the central premise over the film’s first half, letting an atmosphere of unease build through the growing tension Arthur and Norma face by dealing with the moral puzzle of whether to push the button. And of course she pushes it; the film isn’t about avoiding temptation but the struggle for redemption in its many forms. By this point, the larger story is warming up, and Kelly’s begun to build a very weird, very compelling parallel universe stuffed occasionally too full with wonders. Arthur and Norma are drawn into Steward’s world, and their attempts to investigate him invoke his retaliatory spirit, and soon enough the Lewises are under siege from Steward’s seemingly limitless number of “employees” as the tale becomes less about the box and more about who might want to build one and use it on people, and what that group might want. Kelly unleashes some genuine creepy turns in the latter half of the film, as in the sequence where a posse of Steward’s ordinary-looking henchmen shadow Arthur through a public library. They never chase him, and he never runs; they just walk closely behind him, never letting him out of their sight.
The bulk of the film unfolds in ways that wouldn’t even make sense to talk about here, in much the same way that Donnie Darko is twice as tricky to explain as it is to grok in the moment. The Box goes down the well-worn paths of urban paranoia and family-in-danger thrillers, but it’s no accident that Kelly’s tale is tied to the Martian explorations of the late 1970s or the idea that the government might be just as dangerous as you’d want to believe. The film isn’t without its fractures, though. Kelly’s mighty efforts to connect everything from, say, Norma’s prosthetic foot to a ridiculous number of references and performances of Sartre’s No Exit make the film ungainly in places, as if even Kelly isn’t sure which details qualify as referential grace notes and which ones just don’t need to be here. Yet it’s easy to forgive a director so clearly talented and eager to say something his own way. The film is fraught with parallels that Kelly underplays, as well, including the allusions in Norma’s arc to the tales of Pandora and the Lewises to Adam and Eve, and the consequences of self-damnation. Overall, the film is engaging and occasionally mesmerizing, laying out the pieces and letting the viewer make the connections.
Marsden and Diaz provide an energetic heart for the story, and though Kelly unfortunately saddles them with thick Virginia accents to match their Richmond setting, he balances that out with a clear love of the couple and the family they’ve put together. And no wonder: Kelly himself grew up in Virginia, and his father worked on the Mars Viking Lander program as Arthur does in the film. The film works as well as it does because Kelly’s put much of himself into the Lewises, creating the most empathetic protagonists of his feature career. It’s true that Diaz has made some awful, awful films in her time as an actress, but she can, when willing, perform against type and bring to her performances the vulnerability that’s usually never required of beautiful people on the big screen. She did it in Being John Malkovich, and she does it here, creating a likeable Norma with a proven emotional range. Marsden is easygoing, as well, and Kelly mostly resists stereotyping by making Arthur as normal as possible, and Marsden’s happy to oblige. The cast also features Kelly favorites Holmes Osborne and Lisa K. Wyatt, and the presence of the character actors is a nice way to keep the film tied to Kelly’s growing universe.
“I’m doing everything I can to hold onto my sensibility and make the kind of movies that I want to see: one that makes my head spin, and makes me want to come back and see it two or three times in the theater. That’s my ultimate film,” Kelly recently told IFC. There’s no doubt that he’s done that with The Box, creating an enjoyably teasing film that guarantees more rewards on repeat viewings. But it’s also a legitimately good film, broader than Donnie Darko and free of the hyperactive ramblings that made Southland Tales a bit of a chore. It’s a strange but solid story from a filmmaker determined to go to these new places and explore them, unearthing broken treasures and bringing them back for us to see.