I can tell Richard Kelly is going to be one of those filmmakers whose voice is endlessly fascinating but who is always destined to fly under the radar. In a way, I could see his path being similar to that of David Fincher. Yes, very different filmmakers, but individuals with very distinctive cinematic visions that are destined to have mediocre theatrical runs followed by strong a strong home video market. Richard Kelly only has three features under his belt, but each one has and will continue to provide endless discussion. His latest is no exception. The film is called The Box and it is either as complex or as simple as you want it to be. It really depends on how much time you to give it — the more viewings, the more that will become apparent.
The Box is based on a short story by Richard Matheson called "Button, Button." The story has previously been adapted to the small screen, during the 1980s run of The Twilight Zone. On top of that, if Matheson's name sounds somewhat familiar, you may have come across it with I Am Legend as he also wrote that original story. Anyway, "Button, Button" was originally published back in 1970 and is a really short tale that focuses on a couple who are made an offer that could have grave implications. Now, nearly four decades later we see another version of the story, one that has been expanded in scope yet still retains what made the original story so interesting to begin with.
The story is an interesting morality tale. It offers up a simple 'what if' premise. You are given a simple choice. Well, you are given what initially appears to be a simple choice. The problem is that once you make a decision, things get that much more complicated. Why? There are two ways to explain the complications. You could say the movie requires it for length and the script goes on to provide it, or you say that the complications arise organically from the thought processes of the characters involved. The first option is boring and typical, while the second allows you to go off in new directions once the first decision is made.
The Box is built on the idea of simple options and simple decisions leading to complex ramifications. I am not about to go into all aspects of the story, suffice to say there is much to think about and mull over, particularly if you revisit the film a number of times. The more you watch, the more complexity will be revealed and with that revelation the possibility of greater understanding of the big picture. Having only watched the film once, I do not believe I am qualified to even scratch at much of the complexities. Fortunately, complete understanding is not required to be drawn into this movie. On this matter I'm certain I can speak. The Box is an engrossing film that will hold your attention from start to finish, holding you with simple understanding of the tale and leaving you with thoughts of what else may be going on.
Just think about the proposition made. You are given a box with a button on top and told that if you press the button two things will happen: 1) someone, who you do not know, will die and 2) you will receive a payment of one million dollars. Would you do it? Glancing around the message boards the answer is overwhelmingly "yes." Frankly, I am not surprised by this. The problem is that I should be. The idea of causing the death of someone else should at least give you pause. It is not something to be taken lightly. Sure, that is a lot of money, but we are talking about a life here.
Anyway, that is the initial crux of the film upon which everything else is hung. A choice is turned into something much more, something that will test the limits of a family. The family in question is the Lewis family, Norma (Cameron Diaz), Arthur (James Marsden), and their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone). Norma and Arthur agonize over the decision, but once the decision is made bigger things begin to happen.
To discuss any specific plot points would be to give away important pieces of the puzzle. This is a film that relies heavily on its plot. Without its plot, without its secrets, without its surprises, it falls apart. Far be it from me to allow that to happen.
The performances help anchor the at times preposterous tale. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden work well together as they agonize over the decision and attempt to deal with what happens next. Their performances are generally understated, and it works especially as they ramp up towards the end. While they are good, Frank Langella as Arlington Steward is charismatic and creepy in his role as the man behind the box. His presence is quite unsettling.
As for Richard Kelly? I am pretty sure you know what I think about him. After his auspicious debut with Donnie Darko and his intriguing mess Southland Tales, Kelly has delivered his most polished film to date. He definitely has an eye for the screen. His composition always offers something interesting while the pacing is slow enough to let it sink in and fast enough to keep boredom from setting in. He is getting closer to striking a balance between visionary and accessible. Where will he go next?
Bottom line. This is not going to be a movie for everybody. I suspect many will write it off because it is weird. This is something it should be embraced for. If nothing else, Kelly provides a film that is off the beaten path, does not follow formula, and takes chances. The Box should be applauded, even if you don't like it.