Mark Reviews Movies

THE BOX (2009)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Richard Kelly

Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborn, Sam Oz Stone

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 11/6/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The lesson of "Button, Button" is one of irony. Whether it's infused with the concept of never truly being able to know a person like Richard Matheson's short story or of reaping what you sow like the "Twilight Zone" episode.

Writer/director Richard Kelly's The Box, based on Matheson's story, is about hypnotized zombie-like "employees," liquid-based gateway technology, lightning-borne alien intelligence, and a government conspiracy to delay the extinction of humanity. It also has some existentialism tossed into the mix in the form of a few references to Sartre's play No Exit.

That last bit seems the most relevant in the end, as the human conflict of The Box is how the decision to kill a stranger for the reward of a million dollars affects a couple's individual consciences ("Hell is other people," a character points out), but it's the idea that gets the least play from Kelly.

This is Kelly's third feature, and it's obvious he is loaded to the brim with ideas. His strength is also his flaw, as he also clearly has a hard time realizing when he should probably stop putting them down on paper.

This is easily his most accessible movie, but it's also his least involving. Donnie Darko had the power of its emotional core to carry it through all the time traveling, and even Southland Tales, his most unattainable effort, had so much going on that it was at least interesting to watch.

The Box, though, is a simple conceit loaded down with science-fiction hokum, mysterious intonations, and even a late acknowledgement and acceptance of spirituality. The movie is its strongest until the original story ends, and then Kelly screws with our minds for no real thematic purposes except that he knows he can.

The first act is the real article. Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) awake in the early hours of the morning to a knocking at their door. Norma sees a strange, black sedan drive away and finds a plain, brown-paper-wrapped box on their porch. Inside is a wooden lockbox with a red button encased in a glass dome and a note, saying they will be visited later that day.

Norma and Arthur are having trouble financially. Norma, a literature teacher at a local school, is about to lose the tuition discount for their son (Sam Oz Stone), and Arthur, who works on the Viking program for NASA, doesn't get the astronaut gig for which he had hoped.

The visitor is Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a proper man who's missing part of his jaw and neck, who offers the Lewises a deal: If they push the button, someone they don't know will die, and they will receive a million bucks.

The moral dilemma is apparent; the prize is tempting. Norma and Arthur discuss the pros and cons, a chilling and very 1950s horror score accompanies their quandary, and after much deliberation, just at the brink of Steward 24-hour deadline, Norma pushes the button. Somewhere, a woman is shot and killed.

Is the woman's death their responsibility or merely coincidence? How will either of them live with knowledge that they may be responsible?

These are the things that seem the most reasonable continuation of the narrative, and for a little bit, it seems to be going in that direction. Arthur begins looking deeper into things, but Steward doesn't like that.

Suddenly, a bunch of bloody-nosed zombies begin showing up in the Lewises' backyard or while Arthur's dropping off the babysitter or while Norma is researching Steward at the library, and no sooner than we're settling into these turns than Steward himself is holed up in wind tunnel supported by the NSA. The NSA boss says some cryptic things to Arthur's NASA boss about Steward's origins, and a motel swimming pool becomes a gateway to something or other. We begin to realize Kelly is just threading together unrelated ideas in much the same way it sounds like the NSA guy is stringing together words when he talks to Steward about an "altruism coefficient."

It's really shame, too, because the first act works so well. Langella is genuinely unnerving as Steward with his manners hiding something dark underneath. Even the Sartre allusion seems to play in well when Norma and Arthur sit at her sister's rehearsal dinner, seeing a plain, brown-paper-wrapped box in the pile of raffle gifts and imaging sinister people watching their every move.

Of course, it's not just their imagination, and Kelly becomes far too literal with his esoteric ponderings. Sure, The Box ultimately makes sense because of it, but to what end?

Copyright 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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