Moral test of a strained marriage


The Box (M). Running time: 115 minutes. Director: Richard Kelly. Starring: James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella

James Marsden, The BoxI want it to be brilliant. Despite years of disappointment, I am optimistic. The memory of a certain smart, moody little sci-fi film of nearly a decade ago remains sturdy, though it has since been marred by repeated let-downs; a filmmaker's apparent promise all-but proven to be a fraud. Tonight, yet another chance to redeem himself.

The film is The Box, and its writer and director Richard Kelly was once one of the most promising American filmmakers of the noughties. His 2001 feature debut, Donnie Darko, was arguably the best US indie film of the decade. It is dark, funny and utterly intriguing. Its sublime ambiguity demands repeat viewing.

All but the most optimistic film buffs will say it was a wonderful fluke. Kelly's follow-ups were not so great. Domino (directed by Tony Scott from Kelly's script) was a vacuous mess; Southland Tales an epic, visionary failure. Kelly even marred his own masterpiece when he produced a charmless, dumbed-down 'director's cut' of Donnie Darko.

The Box is one more shot at reclaiming greatness, and, damn it, I want him to succeed. Surely Southland Tales has reminded him of the art of restraint, and Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut, that less is more.

On paper, The Box sounds like treasure. A married couple (Marsden and Diaz) is visited by a disfigured stranger (Langella), who presents them with a gift, and a proposition: the wooden box contains a button which, if pressed, will cause someone they do not know to die. They will never know who. In exchange, they will receive $1 million.

The first half of the film lives up to the promise of this morally charged premise. It unfolds slowly and creakily, taught and creepy as an episode of The Twilight Zone, as the cash-strapped Norma and Arthur meditate upon this morbid choice, and mediate the internal battle between logic, their consciences and self-interest.

There are portents aplenty. Norma, a schoolteacher, is humiliated by one of her students in front of the class. Arthur is driving their babysitter home when her nose suddenly starts bleeding and she begins blurting prescient warnings of doom. What's it all got to do with the box? Who knows, but it sure is compelling.

So far, so good. This is chilling stuff. It's Kelly doing his best David Lynch impersonation, by finding terror and wonder in the subtle and surreal. Better yet, it's Kelly recapturing the best elements of what made Donnie Darko so good. It's all about humour and atmosphere and psychological tension. Just brilliant.

It doesn't last. Something happens. It's sign-posted by a weird-cum-silly scene in a library, which culminates in a metaphysical moment that is less mind-blowing than mind-numbing. This will lose most viewers. In an attempt to get them back, the film then starts, well, explaining things. Interest and intrigue start to dissipate. Bugger.

When The Box comes to an end, I frown. Perplexed? A bit. But I was the first time I saw Donnie Darko, too, although back then I also felt moved to deep reflection, and eager to watch it over again. Now I feel cold. Maybe I just need time to digest it? I must really be an optimist: even now I'm not ready to abandon hope.

I bump into a fellow reviewer on my way out of the theatre. We exchange tentative glances. 'What did you think?' he asks.

I hesitate, sigh, then shrug — not a good sign. 'I really wanted to love it,' I reply.

He nods: 'Me too.'

WIN: Eureka Street has free tickets to give away to see The Box. For your chance to win a double pass, email the code word BOX to by 5pm today, Thursday 5 November 2009.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Richard Kelly, The Box, Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Donnie Darko, Southland Tales



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Existing comments

This movie sounded all too much like a drawn out rehash of the old twilight zone story. I don't know if we are expecting too much from the director, considering the material he is working with.
Sean the Blogonaut | 05 November 2009

Sean - Yes you are quite right, that Twilight Zone episode and Kelly's screenplay were adapted from the same Richard Matheson short story, 'Button, Button'.
Tim Kroenert | 05 November 2009

Tim, you say it unfolds as creepy and taught as an episode of The Twilight Zone - well, it actually was originally an episode of The Twilight Zone. It was aired as "Button, Button" in 1986 when an attempt was made to revive the series, which had originally run from 1959 to 1964. The 1986 teleplay was written by Richard Matheson (famous for 'Shrinking Man' and 'Omega Man') for Playboy in 1970.
Barry York | 06 November 2009

Thanks Barry, yes you and Sean are right to point out that the film and the episode both drew upon the same source material.

I've said elsewhere that even while watching it, I couldn't stop thinking that The Box would have worked really well as an episode of The Twilight Zone - short and sweet. I haven't seen the episode and didn't know of it prior to seeing the film. I must check it out.

Actually the film The Omega Man was based on Matheson's excellent novella I Am Legend, which of course was a couple of years ago again adapted as a big dumb Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith.
Tim Kroenert | 06 November 2009

Tim, I agree with yo about the most recent Hollywood remake of I Am Legend. "Dumb" indeed - I think the Omega Man version, with Charlton Heston, retained the meaning and purpose of the original story and stands up very well today.

By the way, folks, Twilight Zone first aired in the USA 50 years ago on 2 October 1959. Something to celebrate!

Last year, I had the pleasure of visiting Binghamton, New York, where Rod Serling was raised. On return, I did a Radio National Perspective broadcast about the experience, which can be read as a transcript here
Barry York | 06 November 2009

The original Twilight Zone story was in my mind while I was writing a young adult novel a couple of years ago. The novel concerns a teenage boy dealing with the trauma of his childhood, part of which was that his mother died at his birth. At a school campfire a teacher tells a short version of 'Button Button', and the boy spends the night dreaming of a doorbell and wondering who pushed it sixteen years ago.

It was with some surprise, therefore, that when my book was with the publishers late last year I heard that this movie was being made out of the original tale. My book was published in July 2009, just beating the movie into the public consciousness. But I wonder if my teenage readers will go and see the movie and wonder who had the story first.

The book is called, They Told Me I Had To Write This.
Kim Miller | 06 November 2009


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