– Summary –
Director : Richard Kelly
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella, James Marsden, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Gillian Jacobs, Deborah Rush, Sam Oz Stone.
Approx Running Time : 118 Minutes
Synopsis: A mysterious man shows up on your doorstep, with the offer of a lifetime. One button to push, and you receive a million dollars. The downside is, that in pushing the button, somebody, somewhere, whom you don’t know, will die. Do you push the button?
What we think : Well filmed, well acted sci-fi thriller falls apart completely at the end, with a “is that it?” final third that simply defies belief. It’s a frustrating conclusion to an otherwise excellent and well crafted mystery, until the denouement is shown and you’re left feeling cheated, swindled and conned. Mr Kelly, was that it?
I’m going to break one of the cardinal rules of critiquing film. Not just a rule for this blog, but for people who write film criticisms in all forms of media. I’m gonna break what is perhaps the single biggest DON’T in the history of film reviewing. I’m gonna break it in a few paragraphs time. This is just a warning, a spoiler alert for the internet savvy amongst you, for those who haven’t yet seen The Box, that I’m going to reveal the key secret this film has to offer, because I’m so utterly pissed off after watching this I feel it’s my justified rage returning volley at Richard Kelly’s contempt for us as viewers. If you’re reading this and thinking, dude, why all the anger, let me tell you this: this films critical plot device, the bit on which the entire narrative hangs, is so utterly dismal and unforgivable, it’ll make you want to burn any and every copy of this film you encounter. It’s a hateful thing, this film, I’m here to say, because as a story it takes you on a journey so elegantly and epically devised, with a mystery so deep and unfathomable, you expect the best from the man who gave us the twisting time-travel complexity of Donnie Darko – The Box is a charlatan of a film, a film designed to have you throwing things at the screen and screeching to the heavens at the two hours of your life you just wasted on the expectation of the cinematic equivalent of a mind-orgasm. There’s complexity, red-herrings and nuances in the opening act of this film which hints at something so huge, so enormous, you’ll be hooked from the very beginning. By the end, though, you’ll feel cheated. Horribly cheated, like somebody came into your house and whipped your dog with your cat.
If you wish to read on, you’ve been fairly warned.
James Marsden and Cameron Diaz play Arthur and Norma Lewis respectively, a young couple living in Virginia in 1976. Arthur works for NASA, and has designed a camera to be fitted to the first orbiter to travel to Mars. Norma works as a teacher at a local school, before she’s given the bad news that funding for her position has been cut. Arthur’s attempt to get into the rocket programme with NASA has also hit a wall, and the couple (together with their young son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) are in financial straits. Early one morning, they wake to find a parcel has been left on their doorstep, and upon opening the package, find a wooden box inside it, festooned with a giant red button. A mysterious man calling himself Arlington Steward arrives with a proposition for the couple: press the button and receive one million dollars (remember, this is 1976 and a million bucks is quite a score), but in doing so the trade-off is that somewhere, somebody they don’t know will die. If they don’t push the button within 24 hours, the box will be collected, reprogrammed, and another couple will be asked to choose. Now, if this was real life, most amoral people would tell Mr Steward to go screw himself, take the million dollars and run like hell. In Hollywood, things aren’t that simple. The moral and ethical question posed to Norma and Arthur is one they struggle with, even though they feel they’re making a deal with the devil. But choose they do (Noma presses the button – see, I told you I’d be spoiling it) and they must live with the consequences. Of course, Arthur second guesses Norma’s decision, telling Steward they they no longer want the money – to which they are advised that they’ve made their choice, and events have been set in motion. From then on, Arthur and Norma find themselves in an increasingly paranoid state of being, as their world soon comes crashing down around them once the full realization of what has transpired hits hard.
Before I tear this film a new asshole, I’m going to give you a few thoughts on where director Richard Kelly went right with this thing. After all, he wrote the script and directed it, so any blame for this pile of stinking offal is entirely laid at his feet. The film begins superbly. The mystery is set up, the characters are introduced and given solid motivations for pushing the button on offer – it is an offer too good to refuse, to pilfer a phrase from another film – so the groundwork and tension begins to rise. This isn’t a horror film, so when I say tension, I mean tension within each character, rather than tension within the plot. After the button is pushed, creepy things begin to happen to Norma and Arthur (they’d been occurring prior to the arrival of Mr Steward, but our heroes didn’t seem to notice too much); people come up to them, mutter things about “doing stuff”, bleeding from the nose, and then collapse: others seem to flick on like robots and follow them about in unison, like a strange army of soulless zombies without the “braaiiiinnnsss” to back it up. It’s all pretty creepy-weird, which is a good thing, because not only does it get people off kilter for a start (the viewers, that is), but it generates a large amount of WTF moments. The mystery of this film is, as far as a concept to make a film, pretty cool. It’s a film I’d been looking forward to watching, and for the first two thirds, I thought it was fantastic.
Marsden and Diaz are solid throughout the film, with Marsden in particular out-acting the always lovely Ms Diaz by the barest of margins. Marsden’s everyman persona, and what his character goes through on this journey, is the reason you watch the film as a viewer – he’s the character we follow moreso than Diaz’s Norma, who seems to look pretty, act befuddled, and not really be as sure of herself the majority of the time. Both leads are outwitted by the genuinely freakish scripting (at least in the aforementioned opening third) and narrative arc, although they try gamely to keep up with whatever plot device comes their way. Frank Langella sleepwalks through his role of Arlington Steward, complete with digital facial disfigurement, all misty eyed and mysterious as he stares down violence and gunplay without batting so much as an eyelid. There’s not to many people who can generate genuine dread and tension on-screen, but Langella is certainly one of them, yet his role is criminally underwritten (perhaps intentionally) so as to leave the audience guessing as to his motivations the majority of the way through the film. The constant “look at me” feel of his digital disfigurement was enough to pull me out of the film a few times, however, which I did concede as another of The Box’s major drawbacks. Kellys camerawork seemed to focus on it a little too much so as to be a distraction. Special mention to Sam Oz Stone as the Lewis’ young son, Walter. Stone doesn’t have a lot to do for the film, entering stage left, wandering across the screen and sliding off stage right without so much as a decent portion of dialogue to speak of. The connection between Walter and his parents feels forced at best, almost as if he’s a burden to them (actually, he is a burden to them, considering he’s a drain on their already depleted finances) and while Stone does portray his character with a degree of naturalness, it wasn’t anything… er, out of the box, so to speak.
From a production standpoint (notice I’m getting all the good stuff out the way first?) The Box is pretty damn impressive. The 70’s setting, complete with gaudy wallpaper and horrifying dress sense, is moody and atmospheric, although the point to it all is pretty dissonant with the actual story – this film could have been set a hundred years into the future and it wouldn’t have made the story any better or worse – but it’s fun to watch the anachronisms spring up from time to time. A noticeable lack of mobile phone technology is actually pretty refreshing in a film these days. The visual effects (facial disfigurement notwithstanding) are good but not great, although the “digital water” effect the film uses from time to time seems to be a throwback to Cameron’s The Abyss – it looks a little fake, and doesn’t fit with the visual palette and aesthetic of the rest of the film. It’s like seeing a Maserati driving through a parking lot of Model T Fords. Out of place. Still, the majority of the films visual effects budget seems to have been spent on set extensions and skyline remodeling – after all, many of the buildings in Virginia in the 70’s have changed since then. The film does look the part, I’ll give it that.
Okay, so I’ve mentioned all the good bits of the film. So where do I point all my vitriol, then; to whom do I deliver the full nuclear anger my arsenal comes equipped to disperse upon an unsuspecting reader who has stumbled all the way down to this sentence and reads it with increased fear that he/she is about to stumble upon something he/she doesn’t want to read? I deliver it to the director, Mr Kelly. Sir, as writer of this filmic debacle, the author of my rage and instrument of this films decidedly stupid conclusion, I blame you for ruining an otherwise perfectly entertaining in front of the plasma screen and turning it into a drivel-ridden wreck. You set up a film to deliver a pretty significant twist or explanation for these seemingly interconnected series of events and expect us to believe it’s a f**king alien invasion? That’s your big reveal? Aliens are studying us, manipulating us with some sort of brain zombie-fication and seeing how we react to a choice like this – money for death? Malevolent aliens watching from afar who are trying to determine if we’re a species worth saving? It’s like a bad plot from Star Trek or something. Shit, at least Doctor Who has a sonic screwdriver; this film has bad hair and even nastier decor. Are you kidding me? After all the cool plot clues and deviant character behavior, as well as the melancholic spooky setting and interesting mystery you’ve spent an hour or so developing, you go and write it all off as some precursor to alien invasion?
It’s enough to make you want to claw your eyes out and throw them at your neighbor. The Box, a film so inexplicably good up until the whole “alien invasion” reveal is revealed, descends into eye-rolling mediocrity faster than Paris Hilton at a slut convention. It’s the kind of stupid, contrived “I can’t think of a decent way to finish this” plot device that any number of Hollywood B-grade films have thrown up from time to time, and so you just put it all down to aliens and close up shop. The film doesn’t even really end, actually. The characters all just end up either dead or in
police Government custody and it’s only a few frames to go before the cover up begins. It smells f**king rotten, is what it does. But Rodney (you ask), surely the fact you’re getting upset means the film affected you, moved you and made you want to have an emotion? Man, I can get emotional watching YouTube videos of cute kittens, I don’t need Richard frickin’ Kelly pulling my pants down and jabbing a finger into my anus like he did with this film, in order to get emotional. I’ve been slighted by a hack, a one hit wonder of a director who’s best idea for a follow ups to one of the 2000’s best film in Donnie Darko was Southland Tales and this shitpile. I think Kelly’s used up his favors in Hollywood now. I hope to God he has. Richard, for the love of God, leave well enough alone to forever bask in the glory of Donnie Darko’s sublime magic, and put your cinema camera away. Or better yet, put the devil-pen you used to scribe this turkey of an ending into a furnace somewhere lest its unholy scribblings manifest themselves as another waste of human time in another film somewhere.
I feel betrayed with this film. A betrayal of my expectations – sure, it’s a tough stance to have – that as a viewer were not met, expectations that the films brilliant opening and set up just dissolved into a poorly constructed series of Kubrick-influenced post-modernism corn-holed by a 70’s aesthetic. I mention Kubrick, and I should also mention David Fincher, because Kelly has riffed on those directors’ sterling efforts in this film – or, stolen their visual cues, more like it. Kelly’s content to plagiarize the 2001: A Space Odyssey flavor for his finale, and the entire film could very well have been cobbled together from b-roll footage of Fincher’s Zodiac, for all the visual similarities it has with that film. Peter Jackson fell foul of this as well, to some extent, with his equally melancholic The Lovely Bones, in which the 70’s are painted in an orange/sepia tint to the distraction of all else. When were the 70’s actually orange, guys? Never, I think. But the story, regardless of whom Kelly is pinching visuals from, is the key trigger for my hatred. I’ve been swindled from a genuinely enlightening film experience, instead finding out before it’s even worth switching the damn thing off that I’ve been watching a f**king alien invasion film. At least that Nicole Kidman stinker had the words “The Invasion” across the front – I knew what the hell I was getting into with that one. People who’ve seen the film, which is probably the majority who bothered to even continue with this review past the “before I tear this film a new asshole” bit, will understand what I’m talking about. They get the point I’m trying to make (a long winded point, I know, but a point nonetheless!) and understand why a person might feel swindled with the utter contempt Kelly has for viewers with his awful, awful ending. The rug gets pulled out from under you in a way that’s completely the opposite of the way M Night Shyamalan did it in The Sixth Sense. Now that was an ending. I think it’s the kind of jaw-dropper Kelly was probably aiming for, but dude, ya didn’t set the right groundwork first before heading into outer space for a story.
I will not recommend this film to anybody. I cannot, in good conscience, tell people to watch this film unless I happen to hate them or they’re my neighbor who stole my hedge trimmer and refuses to give it back on the basis that he doesn’t remember borrowing it. Him I’m gonna recommend this film to, just to piss him off. The Box is a delight for the first two thirds, and an abject failure in the finale. It’s a brutal summation to give an otherwise perfectly watchable film, watchable in the sense that it’s not a bad film for any other reason other than the story is shitty right at the end, but there you have it. If this dark cloud has any silver lining, it’s that perhaps the film could be shown to film students and budding writers on how not to construct a mystery – aliens… yeah, when you run out of ideas, throw in aliens and she’ll be sweet. I don’t care if this is a film based on a short story that originally formed part of an episode of The Twilight Zone – a story that didn’t even begin to approach the alien invasion idea in its original iteration – The Box is, when all’s said and done, a burning bag of turd left on your doorstep. Don’t tread on it.