The Box ***½
Back in 2001, with the release of his feature directorial debut Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly was hailed as a visionary film director and considered to be someone to really watch out for in the future. While not a box office success the film was very well received by critics and became something of a cult phenomenon, its cult popularity eventually leading to an unnecessary straight to DVD sequel that Kelly had no part in. With such an impressive debut, expectations were extremely high for Kelly’s follow up film and initially it seemed that his apocalyptic sci-fi/comedy/satire/musical/whatever film Southland Tales might actually live up to these expectations. However, when Kelly’s ‘work in progress’ version premiered at the Cannes Film Festival it was reviled and even after being recut and effects being completed the film still failed big time at the box office, failed to make an impression with critics (although there are a few that really appreciated the film – I am one of them) and worse still failed to find the kind of cult appeal that Kelly’s debut did. Now, several years on, Kelly has made another attempt and, following the excess of Southland Tales, his latest effort is a much more back to basics effort, more akin to the style of his first film. It actually seems like a match made in heaven. The short story Button, Button by sci-fi author Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), previously adapted for television series The Twilight Zone is exactly the kind of source material that Kelly can really do justice to. But after the disappointment of Southland Tales – according to some people anyway – is The Box a return to form for Richard Kelly or will Kelly himself be the victim of The Box?
Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis are an ordinary suburban couple whose life has hit a rough patch. Things look like they might improve, however, when one day they receive a strange wooden box with a button on top as a gift. However, this seemingly innocent object comes with fatal and irrevocable consequences. Mysterious stranger Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) tells them that, with the press of the button, the box will bestow one million dollars upon its owner. But pressing the button will simultaneously cause the death of a person – someone they don’t know – somewhere in the world. With just 24 hours to make their choice, Norma and Arthur find themselves in a dark and disturbing reality, where nothing is as it seems.
Even though The Box has been sold as a considerably more mainstream film than Richard Kelly’s previous directorial efforts, it is most likely that if you didn’t appreciate Donnie Darko you won’t find much appreciation for this film. Kelly’s distinctive style is evident throughout in both the visuals and the script (he writes as well as directs once again) and consequently, just like Donnie Darko and Southland Tales before it, this is a film that is unique, so unique in fact that only a minority of moviegoers will actually like, or even understand, it. As with Donnie Darko the story is extremely ambiguous. We are not spoon fed information or given any easy answers but rather left to come up with our own interpretations. In particular, the identity and motives of Arlington Steward’s employees remain a mystery, and are something that could be the subject of much conjecture among film fans for some time to come. The character of Steward himself is an enigma, playing an integral role in the film’s events but without any clear indication as to what he is truly up to. The suggestion that he is conducting tests on human subjects – i.e. Norma and Arthur – makes this quite a thought provoking film, with the series of moral and ethical challenges faced by the characters raising a key question – what would YOU do in the same situation? As such, you are guaranteed to leave the cinema with some food for thought. While the film certainly has such intellectual properties, however, it does take some time to get going, as the film starts off in quite dull and uneventful fashion, taking a bit too long to get the necessary exposition out of the way, and only really coming to life once the button has actually been pushed. This slowness of pace means that the film falls considerably short of the level of quality seen in Donnie Darko but once things get going the quality really does pick up. Kelly creates a suitably eerie and creepy atmosphere, with a definite Twilight Zone style vibe going on, and the story goes off in very interesting and unexpected directions, taking on an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style twist at one point. Kelly also gets plenty of opportunity to show off his technical skills. The cinematography captures the dark, sinister tone of the story well and the visual effects are very good, in particular the effects used to make Arlington Steward into the man with half his face missing that we seen on the screen (an effect that apparently cost $1 million to render), which is extremely realistic and unnerving. This effect also adds to the already sinister screen presence of Frank Langella, who delivers a very good performance as the enigmatic Steward. The other performances are also very good with both James Marsden and Cameron Diaz being believable, and Diaz doing a very convincing Southern accent. Richard Kelly fans will also appreciate the presence of Kelly regular Holmes Osborne as Norma’s father/detective investigating murders that may or may not be linked to the box. Authenticity isn’t just present in the acting, though, but also in other aspects too. The look and feel of 1976 America is very authentic and there is significant attention to detail. The soundtrack also aids the feel of the period, as well as complementing the tension that is being portrayed on the screen. Overall, The Box is a film for Richard Kelly fans and one that is unlikely to be appreciated by a broader audience. It has many qualities for those who are able to appreciate them but for the average moviegoer it may be too slow paced and hard to follow.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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