The Box (2009)
Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella
Running Time: 1 hr, 55 min
Rated: PG-13

Review by Brother Reed

Imagine that a mysterious package shows up on your doorstep one day. It contains a simple box with one identifiable feature: a large, red button on the top. The deal is this. If you press the button, two things will happen. First, somewhere in the world, someone whom you don’t know will die. Second, you will receive a payment of one million US dollars. In cash. No taxes. Should you press the button? Perhaps a better question: would you? That’s the premise behind The Box, a confounding speculative thriller with more ideas than it has sense. The Box is certainly high-concept, and the pitch drew me to the theater over other more prominent movies like 2012 that promised predictable structures and events. In that measure I choose well. The Box is not a predictable film, and I can pretty much guarantee you won’t expect most of what happens in the last two-thirds. I also suspect that if you put any thought into the film – and it wants you to – it will give you and whoever you see it with a lot to chew over. However, that is about as far as my praise for the movie extends. If you have to see this, don’t see it alone. But better yet, don’t see it at all. 

I hate to say that because The Box has a lot going for it. Made on a small budget with a fascinating idea and at least one major star, The Box is the kind of movie that should have been a sleeper hit but won’t be because it’s terrible. It’s directed by Richard Kelly, who also made Donnie Darko. I didn’t like that movie either, but at least Darko had some kind of crazy logic behind it. Not only was it passable as entertainment on the surface, but I got the feeling that if I diligently applied myself I could uncover the mysteries of the plot and construct a narrative out of it. With The Box, I feel that some of the puzzle pieces are simply missing, or lead nowhere. If you’re able to put them together, odds are you’ll still be disappointed with the resulting picture.

Consider the possibilities. How can you be sure the box even works? The whole thing could be a prank. You could be on some crazy game show. If it does, however, what are the implications? Are you a murderer if you never lifted a finger in aggression? Does the fact that you were told the consequences of your actions and proceeded anyway implicate you? Make you guilty? Does the good you could do for your family or some charitable exercise with $1,000,000 outweigh the cost of some anonymous life? If you believe that it does, what does that say about you? About your values, your priorities, the worth of humanity and the nature of morality? These are some of the questions naturally raised by the premise, originally posed in the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson. It’s an intriguing idea that should generate a lot of discussion. But the nature of these questions is almost entirely philosophical. There is no action required except to push the button, or refrain from pushing it. Can that choice be made into a full-length feature film? Should it? The Box answers the first question with a “yes,” and the second with an undefined gargle.

“Monopoly” meets “Trouble”

Perhaps the proper outlet for this story has already been explored. “Button, Button” was the basis of a Twilight Zone episode during that show’s run. That format seems more appropriate for the breadth of this tale. Astonishingly, Kelly turns would should have been a trim thriller into an overly ambitious mess. I haven’t read the original story to compare, but it seems to me the premise calls for a very intimate tale. This is first and foremost about a family – primarily a husband and wife team (played here by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) – and the decisions that they make. I would have loved to see this movie take the path of a moral thriller something along the lines of the recent Doubt, exploring the characters’ approaches to their dilemma. The first third of the movie seems to be doing just that. The Lewises are first surprised and skeptical when they receive the titular rectangle. We meet them briefly and discover their situation. Norma Lewis is a school teacher who just found out her child’s tuition will be going up. Arthur Lewis is a NASA scientist who just discovered he won’t be going into space (the reason being he failed the psych exam, a piece of foreshadowing never revisited). Upset and in need of a little cash but certainly not willing to sell Arthur’s hot-rod for their son’s benefit, that million in blood money starts to look pretty appealing.

You see the problem. If they don’t push the button we don’t have a movie. Movies aren’t often made about people not doing things. If they DO push the button, where do you go? At that point we have to see the outcome of the moral choices that have been made, and we can be pretty sure that it isn’t “they took the money and lived happily ever after.” And so it isn’t, not by a long shot. I was happy to see the characters making some logical and intelligent choices at the outset. Arthur doesn’t take the stranger at his word, but rather examines the box as well as the $100 bill, and he tries to secretly get help from an acquaintance in the police force. However, as the film strikes out past its initial hook, it starts to be labored down with a grand conspiracy plot that is cryptic and uninvolving. What’s worse, it fails to truly address most of the key questions inspired by its central dilemma. In effect, it sidesteps them altogether. Without revealing too much, I will say that the movie never establishes causal relationships between significant events. We’re meant to understand that certain events occur at the same time as others – presumably there is a relationship but it’s not clear how each influences the other. Unless there is some kind of time or dimensional distortion (as was the case in Donnie Darko but which is not hinted at here), it cannot be said that event A caused event B. However that means event A loses its gravity, and the moral finger is not pointed at the perpetrator of event A but at the conspiracy surrounding it. I know that explains very little but in an attempt to avoid spoilers I can’t be more specific. The point is that the very moral conundrums that make the movie so appealing fall apart when the plot is scrutinized.

Norma Lewis, a model teacher.

We get lots of story threads involving sudden nose bleeds, physical deformities, and John Paul Sartre, whose philosophy appears to be influencing the film though the implications are muddled at best. Some of these are explained (the nose bleeds) while others seem out of place. Kelly may be an unusual filmmaker but he’s not exactly David Lynch. He probably has an explanation in mind and believes all his clues go together. I’m not convinced that his ideas made a successful transition to the screen. Even if it all really means something the movie is dull, overlong, and lacks visual appeal. An overarching sense of foreboding, danger, or mystery could have created tension necessary to sustain our interest, but these are not present. The characters are little more than test subjects for a cosmic experiment, and that’s the way they come across to us – not as fully realized personalities. Cameron Diaz does her best southern accent, and James Marsden tries to act like he’s not in a romantic comedy. Frank Langella is good in a limited role but there’s no performance or set piece that can set right a movie veering in so many bewildering directions. I know it isn’t fair to judge a film for not being what I had hoped, but better movies have survived sudden jumps in genre. For instance, The Prestige took many people aback (myself included) when it introduced a supernatural element that some perceived as a cheat. However the film was so intriguing up to that point that it succeeded anyway and brought viewers around to appreciating the way it expanded upon its themes.

In the end, the themes of morality, utilitarian ethics, hell and afterlife get lost in a more insipid observation about human nature: if we don’t do what’s good for the whole, we’ll never survive as a species. I’ve heard sentiments like this from a dozen self-important sci-fi disasters and was disappointed to get it from a movie with such cerebral intentions. The Box befuddles without enlightening, spinning its wheels without ever really engaging.