The Box, writer/director Richard Kelly has brought two films to the screen. The first, Donnie Darko (a truly bizarre, puzzle website)has become a hotly debated cult film with a loyal and relatively large following. Personally, I love Donnie Darko, even though I know it doesn't all add up after you've seen the film a few times. The first viewing was so striking I'll continue to suggest it to people, and I just really love the characters in that film. I also think part of the reason that it's so hotly debated has as much to do with the fact that it's gained so much popularity. I get the feeling it's the kind of film a good number of people just love to hate for that reason and that reason alone.
The second film Kelly brought us, the hotly anticipated Southland Tales was an annoying mess. I like science fiction. I like meandering, half intersecting plotlines, which might serve to do little more than add color to a story. I like deus ex machina events in stories when they're well done. Southland Tales was just a bloated, over drawn, over done, boring, incoherent narrative thrown together around some relatively funny lines and some relatively interesting ideas. It was crap, in whole and total. If you haven't even seen five minutes of that utter barge of ego-tastic crap, count yourself among the lucky.
Now comes, The Box. Can Kelly (a Midlothian native) redeem himself for the degree of disappointment movie goers felt with his second film after developing such a following for his first film as to catapult him into the "Directors to watch" category?
The answer: That depends.
Did you enjoy the ride Donnie Darko took you on enough to be a little less critical of some of it's shortcomings? If so, the chances are pretty good you'll enjoy The Box. This is a leap of millennium and dimensions away from Southland Tales, so I'm not even going to attempt to compare the two.
I can say The Box kept my attention for two solid hours, enough to be mesmerizing in it's own dread, gloom soaked way. I was definitely sitting there, trying my best to figure out where it was going to go next. I'm familiar with the original story, "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson, and I've always loved it, but it gives you no real idea where this film is going. Since the story was so short, to get a complete feature film out of it, you'd absolutely have to add to it. And what Kelly adds is interesting, bizarre, conspiracy theory science fiction which is pretty good all in all. It definitely works as you're watching it. You're following it, and it moves along fast enough to kind of hurry you through some of the less grounded aspects of the reality it creates for itself.
If you're not familiar with the original story or the plot of this film by now, here it is. A married couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are approached by a man who brings them a box. Inside the box is a device with a button on the top. The man (played by Frank Langella) explains to the couple that they are being presented with a choice. They can press the button, at which point they will be given one million dollars. At the same time though, someone they don't know will be killed. They are given twenty four hours to decide. If anyone else is told, the deal is off, no money. From there, you figure it out.
Both Cameron Diaz and James Marsden handle their parts with competence. Neither of them puts in performances they are going to be remembered for in either the incredibly powerful or incredibly ridiculous varieties. Frank Langella, on the other hand, takes his role as Arlington Steward, the role that is not only the hardest because it has the most exposition and the most outlandish dialogue to deliver but also because of the degree to which the film fails without it working, and nails it. Langella is great as the vaguely creepy, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes apathetic Steward. I really wish Langella was showing up in more films, because he is always gives such great performances.
This film doesn't have the kind of characters to really fall in love with the way Donnie Darko did. But it does have an even more twisting, turning, topsy, turvy narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat and trying to not only keep up, but get one step ahead. This is probably for the fans out there who really like their sci-fi to come with big BIG ideas. Like Donnie Darko though, I think that after the first viewing and the rush to keep up with it and try to figure it out, I really don't think this film is going to stand up to it's own logic in further viewings. I think there are probably just holes in there big enough to drive a tractor trailer through. Maybe if we get a Director's Cut on Blu-Ray and DVD, it will all be explained further in deleted scenes or something, but as of now, I really don't think it's all there.
For those of you reading this from the Richmond Virginia area, there are Easter eggs galore in this film. Richmond residence are going to be able to watch this film repeatedly just to try and catch all of the extremely Richmond specific things in the film. It's really pretty cool. I was definitely sitting there watching it going, "HEY! That's.........." Those of you who were here in the seventies may even recognize even more of it than I did. That was definitely pretty entertaining, and an added aspect of fun for my Richmond friends.
All in all, this is a fun film, with some flaws that are pretty apparent. It does a really great job of establishing and keeping going an atmosphere of dread, doom and impending calamity. It presents some really fun ideas and some great science fiction tropes in fun and new ways. It also doesn't completely add up once you're done with the initial viewing and try to piece it all together. I could be wrong about that, I'd have to see it at least one more time to be completely sure, but I'm pretty confident I didn't miss anything so necessary that what doesn't make sense to me now would if I'd have caught that sliver of info. If you liked Donnie Darko, you'll be entertained by The Box. If you didn't like Darko, this one is going to infuriate you further and you're probably going to start demanding the death of Richard Kelly. If you do happen to be a Richmond resident though, it may have repeated viewing value for the "is that really in Richmond" game.