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December 12, 2009

The Box

2009, Dir. by Richard Kelly.

When I first saw Richard Kelly's breakout cult hit Donnie Darko, I bought it hook, line, and sinker. But the more I thought about the film, the more I began to doubt it. And, when he followed it with the near incomprehensible Southland Tales, I became concerned that Mr. Kelly might not have an interest in making the kind of film I was interested in. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for inventive science-fiction flicks and movies that think-outside-the-box, but I need to be told a story that makes sense first. So when Kelly met up with a story by Richard Matheson and had major studio backing for a film that literally focuses on thinking about what's inside a box, I figured I'd give Kelly one more chance. I'm pretty glad I did.

Set in Langley, Virginia of 1976, our story focuses on a family of three - Norma and Arthur Lewis, and their son Walter - who are awakened early one morning by a ring of the doorbell and find a box on their doorstep. When they open the box, they find a wooden box topped by a single red button that is covered by a glass dome and locked shut. With it is a card that a Mr. Steward will pay them a visit at 5 pm. When Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) arrives, he brings his disfigured face and a proposal for Norma (Cameron Diaz). If she chooses to push the button, someone she doesn't know will die, and she and her family will receive one million dollars (insert pinky-to-the-mouth gesture here).

From that point forward, the film is about the Lewis' decisions, and their consequences. I've yet to read the Matheson story, sadly, but my understanding is that the first act of the film is his story, while the second and third are Kelly's own concoctions. I was glad to read that, because I felt a definite shift in tone after that first act that didn't seem to fit with what I have read of Matheson. Kelly's film takes the idea in directions that touch on government meddling, life on other planets, free-will, and more. But, with a couple of glaring instances of what I like to call "going flipping crazy", Matheson's film seems far more grounded than his two previous works.

If you're a fan of Kelly's previous flicks, rest assured that this one is not a paint-by-numbers thriller. There are plenty of deep questions asked, references to philosophical texts, and abstract images that are designed for malleable interpretations. The final hour has many moments that had me scratching my head in confusion, but it never seemed to be that moments were created for the sake of confusion. That had been something I felt about Darko and Southland, and something I was glad to see here.

More importantly, Kelly's direction of The Box really impressed me. The film has a terrifically creepy visual tone, and there are a lot of beautiful long shots of scenes that had me visually entranced. Additionally, Kelly does an excellent job of using background characters to amplify the terror on our lead characters, especially in a slightly cheesy mid-film scene where the couple hopes to find answers in a potentially hostile library. The musical score was also very effective, although there were moments I felt the volume of the music overpowered some important conversations. The plot seemed to jump from one set of characters to another often, but transitions were smooth and trying to follow the timeline of events was never a distraction from the film itself.

From an acting standpoint, I was surprised to find few concerns. I had expected to be bothered by Diaz' accent, but the newness of it wore off early in the film and she at least had the decency to keep it consistent through the film. James Marsden is adequate but slightly one-note as her husband, and doesn't detract from the film's power. Langella steals the show as the disfigured Steward, and really takes the film to another level with his performance.

The most exciting thing I found in The Box is that the film rarely seemed to lose momentum. The ominous opening gave me a lot to think about, and the film continued to add ideas to the concept up until the final minutes. There's a lot going on, but very rarely did I find myself lost in the theories when I should have been focused on the events. As a whole, The Box excited me and kept me on the edge of my seat for nearly two hours, which is exactly what I'd hoped it could do.

I'm still not entirely convinced Kelly has it all together as a storyteller (some plot developments call into question the idea of free-will vs. determinism, and I'm unsure the ending gives me a clear answer as to what the film believes in), but I'm more interested in seeing what he does next than I was before I watched The Box. With the right material and a bit of focus, he may just be someone to watch for yet. This film balances well on the line between providing easy answers and provoking abstract thought, and despite some reservations I find myself fully recommending The Box as a chilling and intriguing thriller.

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