With The Box, writer-director Richard Kelly maintains his reputation as a mind-bending filmmaker. He belongs to the same club as David Lynch and Darren Aronofsky, and as is the case with those artists, each movie he makes is a creative risk.
The Box is a risk that doesn’t pay off. Whereas Kelly’s fever dream of a debut, Donnie Darko, was a brilliant evocation of adolescent angst and his apocalyptic musical Southland Tales was gonzo in a way you couldn’t help but admire, The Box is a case of half-hearted ambition, if there is such a thing. Kelly fails, but the problem is he doesn’t fail big enough.
Based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button,” the movie centers on a young couple in 1976 Virginia (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) who are presented with a mysterious box by a gentlemanly, if disfigured, stranger (Frank Langella). Inside is a button. If they push it, they’re told, someone they don’t know in the world will die – and they will receive $1 million.
It’s a straightforward morality play, a variation on an earlier short story, W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” Kelly, though, takes it in a multitude of bizarre directions. He’s a jambalaya filmmaker – he throws all kinds of crazy things in – and so The Box ultimately involves the first Viking mission to Mars, prostheses, Arthur C. Clarke, Christmas, radiation, child abduction and Sartre’s No Exit. The ultimate effect is like experiencing an entire season of “The X-Files” in one sitting – albeit one of the latter, murkier seasons.
The word murky could also describe the movie’s visual scheme. The early, domestic scenes are fuzzily lit, while the “wow” moments – including a teleportation sequence involving columns of water – aren’t nearly as grabbing as the bizarro visions in Kelly’s earlier films. I don’t want to say Kelly’s lost his touch – his schizoid fingerprints are all over this – but The Box suggests that while bending our minds, he’s also spinning his wheels.