I wonder how many people who watched Richard Kelly's The Box wished that Richard Kelly was the one that died when the button was pushed. I'm not one of those people, but sometimes I speak for the opposing side. After the similarly polarizing Southland Tales, Kelly dipped into a seemingly more conventional piece, adapted from the minuscule but effective short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson. Though it wasn't as bizarrely out there as reviews had me believing, The Box is not your average morality tale. Feel free to replace "morality tale" with something more ruthless and piercing.
James Marsden and Cameron Diaz (whose faux-Southern accent sometimes sounds like Scarlett O'Hara after a stroke) are Arthur and Norma Lewis, who, with son Walter (Sam Oz Stone), are a nuclear family whose days of sunbeams and hair tussles are over from frame one. Arthur is an employee of NASA's Langley, Virginia site. He developed the cameras for the Mars Viking missions and is in line to become a traveling astronaut. Norma is a private-school teacher with a deformed foot. Walter asks too many questions and would disappoint me if he was my son. Surrounding them is an entire cast of familiar faces whose limited screen time could be inconsequential, or each could have some amazingly deep insight into the story's fabric. That's what you're supposed to think, anyway.
You know what happens next. Arlington Steward (a solid Frank Langella) arrives at the Lewis doorstep, button unit in hand. (It's impolite to stare at his face, but impossible not to.) The big red button can lead to a million dollars in cold hard cash, but only if it's pressed. If it's left alone, nothing happens; Norma gets a $100 bill just for hearing the offer. Oh, that's right, if the button does get pressed, it's not all riches; someone they do not know will die. The two button-pushing stipulations are guaranteed by Steward, but they don't end up holding water, and that pissed me off. Why keep to the original rules if they're going to be ignored and replaced? Despite giving the plot conflict and tension, I felt removed from it because there were no rules guiding them. At least he wrote the time-travel book for Donnie Darko's convoluted plot. We get nothing like that here.
To make a short story long, Norma does press the button, thus unleashing an abstract series of events leading up to a finale whose emotional tugs are no stronger than the masturbatory tugs that Kelly takes in order to bring his story from place to place. If The Box was a movie cobbled together from unrelated scenes filmed for unrelated movies, then it's quite impressive. Kelly's direction isn't astounding, but it's shot as the story is told. Single, staid shots for normal home life, and then more movement and quirks when the plot opens up. It's the first feature filmed at the NASA site, so some location shots are amazing and make the film appear larger and the conspiracies wider in scale. CGI is used to make Viriginia look as it did 30 years ago, and as expensive as I'm sure it was, it certainly does the trick. Even the cars and most of the weather were digitally fabricated. On the other side of the CGI coin, there are water coffins and a swimming pool transport-hub that look like half-cooled gelatin. Pretty cool, even if I have little fucking clue what they're supposed to mean or do. Visuals aside, I have to say I absolutely loved the score, which sounded like Hollywood thrillers of yore, and definitely added suspense to scenes that had none.
It's rather odd that, despite my dislike for James Marsden as an actor, I rather enjoyed his performance of the well-rounded Arthur Lewis. The Box is threaded together by themes of marriage and family, so it takes that kind of actor to pull it off, and he did a fine job, avoiding the ham that Cameron Diaz added to all her screen time. I don't really care for her, either, and she did little to impress me here. I liked Norma well enough as a person, but Diaz brought all the wrong things to the character. The frantic ending I alluded to earlier is, in and of itself, a well-wrung piece of suspense, and hinges entirely on the strength of this family. But the set-up and conclusion are so purposefully heavy-handed that it falls apart beneath itself. The climax isn't the result of a logical sequence of events; it occurs because this movie is about choices, and Kelly wants to end on a huge one. The whole thing is akin to asking someone if they've murdered anyone since the last time they beat their wife. There's no right answer. Just don't say anything, and for God's sake, don't press that button.
If you're looking for special features, you're really only going to find them on the Blu-Ray disc, some of which come with the DVD and digital version of the film. The only feature that shows up on both versions is "Richard Matheson: In His Own Words," which is a delightful but skimpy segment where Matheson talks about his vast writing career, and says a few words about "Button, Button" itself. I'm guessing nobody made him watch the movie.
The Blu-Ray features are hardly worth the upped price of the disc, because nothing about the The Box is particularly hi-def in the first place. But consumers be damned, this is how they did it. The strongest draw of these few features is Richard Kelly's commentary, which sheds light on many puzzling aspects of his interpretation of the original story. However, he leaves a lot up to the viewer's imagination, and often doesn't seem to understand everything either. Now, I have no problem not knowing what was in the McGuffin briefcase in Pulp Fiction, because I didn't have to know. But there are some things that need to be spelled out for me, and water coffins are a prime example.
The second most impressive feature is "The Box: Grounded in Reality," which, like the commentary, explains the connection between Arthur/Norma and Kelly's own parents, both of whom have talking-head spots. Good stuff. It adds something superficial to the movie. There is a "Visual Effects Revealed" feature that covers the CGI city aging, and how Langella filmed his scenes with a green screen taped to his face. There are three musical segments that serve as prologues, and it's a pretty stupid idea in theory and practice. It's pieces of the score put to visuals of NASA shit. Unneeded as far as water-coffin explanations go.
All that, and I actually like the flick. But I think it's a very faulty piece of entertainment. There was no sense of fulfillment at any point during or afterward. I hear Richard Kelly is turning Curious George into a movie dissecting evolution. Surely I jest.