Release Date: Nov. 6
Director: Richard Kelly
Writer: Richard Kelly (based on a short story by Richard Matheson)
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella
Cinematographer: Steven B. Poster
Studio/Run Time: Warner Bros., 115 mins.
What’s in the Box? A flawed but fascinating film
A horribly disfigured man shows up at the doorstep of a young family with a box and an offer. If they push the button, they will be paid $1 million dollars, but there’s a catch: Someone somewhere will die. In this case, the young couple do in fact push the button, and someone somewhere does in fact die. Afterwards, they are hounded by blank-eyed strangers with bleeding noses, suggesting a far-reaching conspiracy that may or may not involve NASA and the NSA, among other shady organizations.
The problem with conspiracies like this one is that the unexplained is always scarier than the explained, so that the explanations rarely live up to expectations. Such is the case with The Box, which stars James Marsden and Cameron Diaz as the young couple and Frank (“Nixon”) Langella as the horribly disfigured man. Director Richard Kelly, who made both the cult hit Donnie Darko and the cult mess Southland Tales, sets up the conspiracy with discipline and precision, carefully doling out information to the audience and patiently ratcheting up the tension even as he backburners the moral implications of that offer. Working from a short story by Richard Matheson, he sets the movie in 1976, which turns out to be a smart move: That world looks like a distorted mirror image of our own, and the slightly off details of the period are unsettling and uncanny.
Once the nature of the conspiracy is disclosed, however, The Box loses much of its menace and magnetism. Without giving anything away, it’s far-fetched and byzantine in its logic, which forces Kelly to break perspective and stage conveniently expository conversations between minor characters. He’s telling rather than showing, which honestly may be his only option. Still, Kelly manages to deliver an emotionally resonant finale that transcends what could have been a cheap twist and hinges on Diaz’s soulful, understated performance.
The film’s moral and emotional anchor, she sells as real what might just be hokum. The Box flirts promiscuously with the ridiculous especially during its second hour, and yet there’s something redeeming about Kelly’s storytelling ambitions. In just three movies—two if you ignore Southland Tales—he has become an intriguing, distinctive, and, yes, erratic voice in cinema, with an eye toward both the spiritual and the scientific, the celestial and the corporeal. One of the film’s best moments is a throwaway scene near the end, when Marsden flips through a user’s manual for an otherworldly technology. Kelly shows just a few pages, but the effect is riveting as he filters the sublime through the mundane. Despite its flaws, The Box is full of real wonder, which shouldn’t be such a scarce commodity in theaters.