Friday, November 6, 2009

Stressed? Depressed? Press!

Film Review - THE BOX (2009)

Screenplay by Richard Kelly, based on the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson
Directed by Richard Kelly

I yield to no one in my respect and admiration for the work of Richard Matheson, so please accept this admission from a true believer when I confess that "Button, Button" - the story that supplies the foundation for The Box - is a middling effort from the legendary author. The concept is elegantly simple, but the climax of the original story - first published in the June 1970 issue of Playboy - is a hamfisted punchline that's all but missing a rimshot. When it was adapted for the 1980s iteration of The Twilight Zone, the producers had both the wisdom and temerity to change it to a chilling throwaway line - something of a surprise considering how broadly the episode was played up to that point. So for Richard Kelly to use the tale as a jumping-off point for a full-length screenplay made sense (he even finds a way to cleverly tip the hat to the endings of both versions). He wasn't approaching a property that demanded a reverential treatment. And while The Box is as serious as a heart attack, it is anything but reverential to its source material.

Kelly's film is a room designed around a throw pillow; not just a room, but more like a whole house. By now, the high concept behind the screenplay should be known to most; a young couple receives a tastefully-simple box from a tall, mysterious stranger (the unit would be perfectly at home on the shelf at Crate and Barrel). Atop the box is a large red button, and if pressed, two things will happen - they will receive one million dollars in cash, and someone somewhere they do not know...will die. It's the type of ethical conundrum that made The Book of Questions one of the best-selling titles of the 1980s.

Do they push it? Well, I don't think you have to attend a screenwriting seminar with Robert McKee to guess that, yes, they do (otherwise the movie would be over before its first reel). But here's where Kelly's plotting audacity kicks in. He spins an elaborate scenario of dimensional passageways, slack-jawed spies, living pools of water, nosebleeds, NASA, children in danger, bodily possession, disfigurement, Jean-Paul Sartre, living lightning...and I'm certain I've forgotten a few elements. Kelly's plot expands like argon gas, and while he's not able to successfully contain every idea, he piles weirdness upon weirdness to craft a confoundingly watchable whole.

Kelly is aided and abetted by a cast that plays the Gordian Knot of a plot with conviction. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden make a believable married couple, saddled with the hardships that a late 1976 economy bring to bear. (Marsden was hoping for acceptance as an astronaut to escape his dead-end NASA job, but was rejected for failing the psychological test - an outcome that should have ramifications after the closing credits roll.)
Diaz teaches at a private school; one of her first scenes has her dealing with a skeevy student who asks about her disfigured right foot. That student is just one of a not-to-be-trusted supporting cast that includes babysitters and bosses. And bearing the only-in-the-movies name of Arlington Steward, Frank Langella is a portrait in reptilian sangfroid, his left cheek erased by an errant lightning bolt. Is his countenance all that the electricity took from him? And did it grant him omniscience? There's a creepy scene where he tells Diaz he is watching her during a phone call, and just as the audience is accepting and rejecting the possibility of cell phones (it is the Bicentennial, folks), we see just exactly what he's talking about.

Kelly is, of course, the writer/director of the 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko, and there are enough shared motifs to make fans of that film sit up and pay attention (retro suburbia, politics in the background, weird weather, an aerodynamic subplot, even a house that's ruined by catastrophe originating in a second story bedroom - I was expecting Mary McDonnell to show up in the final scene, wearing a terry-cloth bathrobe and smoking a cigarette). And like that film (notice, gentle reader, how I am not bringing up Southland Tales, and no, I have not been paid off), The Box occupies a dreamlike world - sporting touches of Lynch and Kubrick - that can shift from confusing to enthralling in a heartbeat. In fact, the efforts at exposition and explanation are so inartfully inserted that I would have preferred them not to be there at all. Also, that dreamlike state can mean that Marsden and Diaz are often too accepting of the oddness that surrounds them. If I'm being chased through a library by five zomboid guys in a chevron formation, I might break into a sweat just a tad sooner than Marsden does. But when the climax requires the pair to draw upon all their emotional resources, the power is there in abundance. They're merely a decent couple who, because of the vagaries of time and circumstance, and thanks to one impetuous decision, find themselves in their own personal Sarte-by-way-of-Serling nightmare. Hell is a Box. And there are some buttons that can't be un-pushed.


Jeff Allard said...

Top notch, Senski! A great write-up all around - glad to see you liked the movie about as much as I did. I'm not a huge Kelly fan by any means. I liked, but didn't love, Darko and never saw Southland Tales. But I had a really good time with The Box.

senski said...

Thanks, Jeff! Darko had me transfixed, and while The Box doesn't cast the same spell, I know it's a movie I'm going to want to see again...and I'm betting the DVD commentary will be amazing.

Austin said...

I thought a lot of this movie could have been cut out. I liked it however.