When a mysterious stranger deposits a box at the door of married couple Arthur (James Marsden) and Norma (Cameron Diaz), they are presented with a stark choice. Do they press the button and receive $1 million, in the knowledge that doing so, someone, somewhere will die?
Well, what would you do? That’s the question that will sit with you long after Richard Kelly’s sci-fi/horror/morality play has faded out. Like Adrian Lyne’s Indecent Proposal 16 years before it, his high-concept quandary asks both its protagonists and its audience a million-dollar zinger. Unlike its predecessor, here it’s not just OAP ugly-bumping that’s at stake. This time, taking the money comes at a much higher price...
It should have been the stuff of dinner-party discussion the world over; a movie that intrigued across genders and generations. Not least given its credentials: based on a short story by sci-fi icon Richard Matheson (I Am Legend); already adapted into one of The Twilight Zone’s more famous episodes; and starring the highest-paid actress working today. It should, frankly, have made a hell of a lot more than its crumby $7.6 million opening weekend in the US.
That it did may not exactly be the greatest news for Kelly — where now, Richard? — but at least he can’t be accused of selling out. On paper, it all looked very straight and smart: big star, big studio, big success. Instead, he takes that box office-friendly set-up and, well, indies it all over the place. Nose-bleeding zombies, Sartre-spouting mystery men with half their faces missing, her off of There’s Something About Mary with half her foot missing, NASA conspiracy theories, 2001-styled Star Gate montages, endless existential noodling, a spot of time travel and a suicidal Santa... It’s so stripped of mainstream logic that the first screening to the Paramount brass must have made for an interesting day. And it so wilfully, wonderfully disregards narrative convention that Donnie Darko fans will have a ball.
Of course, such was the fallout from Southland Tales — Kelly’s savaged sophomore farrago — that Darko already feels a mighty long time ago. But that movie’s faithful will feel right at home from the get-go. The Box, like Darko, once again sees Kelly pit an all-American family against paranormal forces. And this time it’s personal, with Diaz and Marsden based in part on Kelly’s parents and the movie set in his childhood backyard of Virginia, circa 1976.
The setting gives Kelly the chance to play with many of the stylistic licks of that era, his sound design, Arcade Fire’s retro soundtrack, and cinematography (he shot on digital, having been convinced the medium could fit a period setting when he saw David Fincher’s Zodiac) establishing a paranoid, foreboding tone that riffs on the likes of Rosemary’s Baby and Kubrick — The Shining and 2001 the most obvious influences. But although the personalising of his story draws out some great performances — particularly from Diaz — it also strips the situation of much of the empathy needed for it to truly work. Diaz and Marsden here are a teacher and a Langley scientist respectively, struggling to pay their son’s private school fees when his application to become an astronaut is rejected. Hardly on the breadline, are they? Are we really supposed to empathise with their decision to sacrifice a human life, anonymous or not, for the sake of a fancy education?
In Frank Langella’s Arlington Steward, though, Kelly has crafted a brilliant bad guy. Sporting some terrific CG work that sheers off an entire cheek, he’s a captivating combination of Two-Face and Jigsaw, an unhinged loon, all the more scary for his conviction that morals are on his side. Any more would spoil it, but it’s safe to say that once his button is pushed, he’s a memorably scary creation.
Certainly, The Box will befuddle, confound and frustrate, its refusal to stick to a single tone, or even genre, maddening if you’re not prepared to fly with it. But here’s the real question: given Kelly’s startling box office wobble since the highs of Darko, will he feel forced to play things more commercial in the immediate future? Will this, then, be the last pure Kelly movie we see in a while? It’s a very real worry. The question is: is missing it on a big screen a choice you’re prepared to make?
Movie Marmite. Many will be perplexed. Donnie Darko fans should lap it up.