Australian Release Date: 29 October 2009
Review by Tom Clift
Director Richard Kelly’s feature film debut was Donnie Darko, a bizarre mind bending thriller that, although initially unsuccessful, has since gone on to find a massive cult following on DVD. His second film was Southland Tales, also a bizarre mind bending thriller, only without the cult status or positive reviews. Personally I think Darko is tad over-rated , whilst Southland Tales can best be described as an interesting mess, probably also worth watching if only to try and deduce what Kelly was trying to say. His latest film is The Box, and much like his previous works it is at times inaccessible, confusing, and, on further reflection, it doesn’t really make much sense. However Kelly has managed to imbue the movie with a mysterious and unsettling quality that makes for an oddly gripping time at the cinema, and whilst I’m sure many people will disagree, I would consider it to be the best of his three films, and one of the more interesting and even compelling movies of 2009.
Based in concept on the short story Button Button by Richard Matheson which was later adapted into a Twilight Zone episode of the same name, the initial premise of The Box is centred around a fascinating moral dilemma: Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) are a married couple with one son and growing financial difficulties who are visited out of the blue by a hideously disfigured man named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Steward is the one who presents them with the eponymous box, a small wooden device housing a single red button, as well as a briefcase containing one million dollars in cash. The choice he presents them with is simple: they have twenty four hours to press the button. If they do so, they keep the cash and someone, somewhere in the world, who they do not know, will die.
Now the first twenty to thirty minutes of the film follows the same path as the short story, as the Lewis’s agonize over the choice of whether to push the button. Even in the early parts of the film there is an uneasy tension in the air, as the audience members are forced to contemplate what choice they themselves would make. Of course, being a full length feature and not a twenty two minute episode, there isn’t a whole lot of suspense in guessing whether they’re actually going to press it or not, and so the remainder of the movie deals with the consequences of their choice. From here we see Kelly’s pen take over – he was also the screenwriter – as the story becomes an increasingly confusing mystery that branches into the territory of science fiction as the Lewis’s attempt to uncover the true nature of Steward and his sinister “employers” before their decision catches up with them.
Without giving anything away, this film goes to some truly incomprehensible places, and at times it does seem that Kelly doesn’t really know what he wants to do with the story, cutting from one bizarre scene or situation to the next without any really explanation. However I went with it the whole way, compelled despite my confusion. I’m usually very critical of movies that don’t present a cohesive storyline (Mulholland Drive and 2001: A Space Odyssey both spring to mind.) But because this movie does such a great job of drawing you in in its opening act, I was invested in the story enough to accept the outlandish places the plot eventually goes. And even as it gets progressively stranger, there is always an intense atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty to be found in this film. The way Kelly frames things; the use of the score and production design, as well as the constant question of what the hell is going on all contribute to this perpetual, disquieting sensation that keeps your mind ticking and your eyes glued to the screen.
There are times when the weirdness does go too far – when what was meant to be creepy just comes across as kind of silly. But more times than not, Kelly, who does a good job behind the camera, succeeds in keeping things tense and interesting. I wouldn’t call the acting remarkable, but it’s definitely solid, with Langella especially putting in a nice turn as the polite yet sinister Mr Steward. And it was things like his character that ultimately made me love this movie; that constant feeling of uncertainty and unease, the thrill of literally having no idea of what was coming next. I know that the critical response to this film has been mixed at best, and I can certainly understand why that is. I doubt it will be a commercial darling either; personally, I think it’s more deserving of the cult status that Donnie Darko has already found. On an interesting side note, there are parts in the trailer that weren't in the film itself, so perhaps a more cohesive directors cut will eventually make it's way to DVD.
At the end of the day, The Box won’t be for everyone, but I thought it was an absorbing, unsettling and at times very thrilling film that makes for a memorable although not entirely satisfying viewing experience. People who like things made clear to them probably won’t respond well to The Box – although I would normally count myself in this group of people, so who knows. You will certainly have questions after this leaving film, and you might spend some time pondering whether you actually liked it. Personally though, I didn’t have to think on that one for very long.