I have now seen The Box a second time and am self-assured that I made the right decision with a three-star grade (although that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of you will enjoy it). I enjoyed it more this time when I stopped trying to tie up the loose ends. I had a tub of coffee ice cream and a bottle of Bailey’s, sat back and enjoyed being alternately dazzled and confused. Because this time I enjoyed the trancelike and mysterious qualities and was content that I understood as much as I needed to know about the film without feeling anymore that I needed to know everything. I ask of you to sit back and just be confused and let it be. Enjoy the spell that filmmaker Richard Kelly puts on you. I know that’s a lot to ask of you, but if you turn down the challenge I will understand.
A secret organization with sinister but undefined motivations is toying with the people of Arlington, Virginia in the year 1976. Chief puppeteer Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) in a black coat and a disfigured face shows up at the door. In his arms is a box with a glass dome lid that shields over a big red button. Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) have 24 hours to decide whether to push the button. If they do, they will inherit $1 million dollars tax free. But elsewhere in the world someone random will die as a result. If there is a consolation is that the victim will be someone they do not know.
With his camera, Kelly (“Donnie Darko,” “Southland Tales”) creates a number of visual motifs such as characters bleeding from the nose and dispossessed people frozen in stone-face. Kelly is obsessed with portals: When a character must guess the gateway to “salvation” or to “eternal damnation” you might be confounded by which entrance was chosen. This is a director that not only quotes Jean-Paul Sarte and Arthur C. Clarke but constructs homage that is reminiscent to “2001: A Space Odyssey” while he’s at it. The imagery is startling and breathtaking, and then sometimes just nonsensically weird. Big studio movies are rarely this weird, that could be a plus if you are attracted to oddities.
Ambiguous to the point that it dislocates your senses, the film nevertheless hits some frightening notes and perplexes you with enigmatic symbolism. Marsden and Diaz bring the right amount of guilt and vulnerability to their performances. Langella performs his role with a clout of supremacy that is needed for his aura of shadowy malevolence.
If you have the same kind of gravitation towards ambiguous puzzle movies you might just want to put up a fight to see “The Box.” What a weird movie. Big-budget studio movies are rarely this weird.
Note: Warner Bros. made it a big deal in the ads that it is based on a Richard Matheson story, the famous literary writer whose adapted works include “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “What Dreams May Come” and “I Am Legend.” But The Box was originally “Button, Button,” a skimpy short story that was a set-up and then a punchline told in five or six pages. This is more of a work by Kelly as author with a nod to Matheson if anything.
115 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / MINDBENDER / EERIE FOGGY EVENING VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Eraserhead” (1977); “Lost Highway” (1997); “Donnie Darko” (2001); “Primer” (2004).