Directed by Richard Kelly. Starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs, James Rebhorn. (2009, PG-13, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 13, 2009
Based very loosely on a short story by original Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson, The Box is a convoluted and capricious morality tale that cobbles together sci-fi, absent body parts, NASA, Sartre, and Cameron Diaz into a not-altogether-functional mix that is nevertheless creepy on its own terms. Or, really, Kelly's terms, which, as in his breakthrough hit Donnie Darko, are infused with surreal, dreamlike, and philosophical elements. Indeed, The Box has no shortage of interesting ideas simmering at its core. It's just that by the time the film ends, you're wondering what the point is. More than a few critics felt similarly toward Donnie Darko, although the layers of reality in that particular film reward multiple viewings. The Box seems destined to be a single-rental misfire. Diaz and Marsden are a quotidian everycouple, Norma and Arthur Lewis. It's 1976, she's a teacher, he's a NASA employee, and all is fine and right in their world until one evening they receive a visit from a mysterious stranger by the name of Arlington Steward (Langella, well-cast and sporting an eerie CG wound to his face). Steward arrives to explain the significance of the titular box, previously deposited on their doorstep. Atop the box is a big, red button beneath a glass dome. Steward presents the cash-strapped couple with a proposition: Push the button and receive $1 million, with a catch – someone, somewhere, whom they do not know, will be killed when the button is pressed. Not your everyday bicentennial conundrum, but possibly no more freakish than Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" charting at Billboard's No. 9 that same year. The button, needless to say, does not remain untouched for long, and from there on out The Box feels very much like a sprawling jigsaw puzzle that may – or may not, because with Kelly it can be hard to tell – be missing some key pieces. Diaz and Marsden turn in fine, increasingly bewildered performances, but Langella, with his black hat and blacker eyes, is one of the more memorable instigators in a suspense film (and I can't think of any other label to attach to this particular genre-defying Box) since Rod Serling exited the Night Gallery. Kelly's writerly ambition gets the most of him here – most nonfan audiences will likely leave The Box baffled – as he layers on a deep-pile, Seventies shag rug's worth of ominous subplots that, while undoubtedly weird, has neither the interlocking backstory nor the off-kilter oddness of Donnie Darko. It's a mess and it might cost him some career freedom, but at least Kelly hasn't cashed in his trademark narrative complexity for Hollywood pap.