The Night Out: The Box (2009), or Who’s Got The Button?

15 11 2009

If you can be sure of anything in life, it’s that opinions vary. Most people will say that there is definitely a God, and that he has a plan for all of this crazy mess, while other people, namely me, will tell you that it’s a beautifully designed universe, but a universe designed by chance. Most people will say that celebrities are divinely gorgeous and genetically superior, while I find them to be dull and lusterless in the face of real women. I also think that Bjork is bad ass, but I’m pretty much alone on that in the US. Today, I think I stand alone again, specifically in the movie critiquing arena, as I just saw The Box, and while I thought it was pretty good, and feel like it’s a return to form for Richard “I’m Going To Blow My Career’s Brains Out” Kelly, I think most people will consider this strike 2 for him, effectively putting him on thin ice. What gets him is that he’s a broadly commercial director now who has a very peculiar way of progressing the story, and this agitates the sensibilities of most, giving most people the impression of artistic desperation. I don’t feel that this is a movie is a movie made by a desperate man; perhaps an unbalanced man, but certainly not at the level he was while making Southland Tales

So, this is based off of a Richard Matheson short story, and it asks a simple moral question that has far-reaching ramifications. A middle-class family in Virginia around the mid 70s is given a choice by a strange man with a horribly disfigured face. He stops by early one morning and drops a box off at their doorstep with a note that says he’ll return at 5 o’clock that day. Inside the box is another box, a black one with a big red button on it, concealed by a locked glass dome. When the man does return at 5, the wife, named Norma, answers the door to find the disfigured man, who offers her what he calls a “financial opportunity”; he hands her the key to the box, and tells her that two things will happen if she presses it; one, she will get $1 million in cash, and two, that someone, whom she doesn’t know, will die. He leaves, telling her that she has 24 hours, and that he will return tomorrow to pick it up whether she has pressed it or not. She tells her husband when he gets home, and the two deliberate all night as to whether or not they should do it. After a long night and day deciding on it, and factoring in their dire financial situation and the fact that upon examining the box they find no wires or electronics inside, they press it. At 5, the man comes to retrieve the box, and that’s where the film really begins, because the ramifications for pressing that button are more drastic and far-reaching than either of them could ever imagine. As soon as they receive the money they’re embroiled in a web that stretches into the farthest reaches of the imagination.

This is a little more complex than you’re led to believe in any of the trailers. I was honestly underwhelmed when I first heard about the idea, but after hearing more about it, it started growing on me. I wanted to know what the deal was with this button, and what I got was beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s unusually dense for a Richard Kelly movie, filled with haunting music, esoteric imagery, and a lot of references to Jean-Paul Sartre that is a bit literate for most, but I found it refreshing. In a way, it’s really his most obscure work yet, even more obscure than the dumb, loud Southland Tales. For something he’s touted as his commercial movie, I have the feeling that he might never have actually seen a commercial movie before, because this movie is quite weird, and more than a little off-putting for the old lady who was looking for The Transporter 4 starring a disfigured Frank Langella.

I can’t say that it’s all good. There are a few things I could have done without. Firstly, Norma, played by Cameron Diaz, has a ridiculous-looking disfigured foot, a handicap that neither looks real nor plays any huge factor in the film. It’s simply an oddity for the sake of being an oddity, and while one scene uses it for leverage (HA!), and other scenes make the slightest attempt at referencing it, it seems like a big thing for no payoff. Also, there are a few characters that deserved a little more screen time while others are given a full fucking set of scenes! I could have done without knowing too much about Arthur’s NASA boss who never really contributed much, but good luck trying to get an elusive character like Lucas Carnes on screen for more than a minute. I suppose it’s a preference thing, but I would have preferred to become immersed in the intricate story rather than see Norma’s sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner and reception. And every now and then you get this weird feeling that Richard Kelly, who also wrote this, doesn’t really interact with people, and doesn’t have an idea of how things sound. Some of his dialog is quite unwieldy, and it’s only amplified by the hushed tone of his conspiracy-theorizing style of conclusion-jumping.

The cast is where things get kind of hazy. James Marsden is good as Arthur, the devoted dad who works at NASA but could use a few extra bucks to help out with the bills and his child’s college education. He has a lot of nuances that help the character breathe; even though Marsden is chiseled from limestone, it appears, I still buy that he could have worked at NASA in the 70s. Cameron Diaz, however, is a problem here as Norma. The main problem being I can’t stand it when people use unnatural accents, and her being Southern is kind of a stretch for her Cali girl pallet. I think she could have lost it and not appeared to be a total outcast; not everyone in the South sounds like Sookie Stackhouse, you know. Frank Langella shines as the mysterious man known only as Arlington Steward, who delivers the box to them for unknown and perhaps unknowable purposes. He is a terrifying presence that exerts a particular will in the film that really shows his growth as an actor from an inferior incarnation of Dracula in the beginning of his career to a real power player. All of my favorite scenes feature him in them.

I like The Box. I might be the only one, but if you can put on your Senior Critic Helmets for a second when you watch it, ask yourself this simple question; why not? Why not let yourself get taken in by the massive web of story that has a philosophical weight behind it? Why not get behind the poor Lewis’s, who only wanted some money for their son’s college tuition? And why not enjoy a movie that has a fair cast, a good director, an excellent score, and an exceedingly good, if not slightly confusing story? If you have some answers to those questions that are valid enough to write down and don’t involve the words “Balls” and “Sucked”, let me know, because I have no reasons why not. So I’ll be the one with the oddball opinion and give The Box 8 noticeably bad Southern accents out of 10!

Tomorrow we get a little Amadeus action going on! Until then!

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5 responses

15 11 2009
Bren

A. The “exceedingly good” story of which you speak makes no sense. Not in the Donnie Darko strange, existential no sense, mind you. It cannot figure out what it wants to be- science fiction, conspiracy theory or religious allegory? Can’t be all at once without becoming a muddled mess of a plot. Which it unfortunately is. It takes a LOT to make me fight off a nap during a movie in a theater (I sat wide awake through all of “Snow Falling on Cedars”) but I found myself more interested in the squeaky chair of the people behind us than the dialog or story. At least “Southland Tales” made me laugh.

B. I caught the back-handed reference to me in the last paragraph. Not nice.

16 11 2009
Jenni David

hahahaha I caught it too BALLS Brenna!! I officially vote for Cameron Diaz to be at the top of the most UNwanted list! I wouldve seen this movie the other night except she was in it…oh dont worry…I will see it but rent…im not paying good money for her trash acting…AND she is NOT pretty! Gross…I hate her sorry! You are correct though, James is a sexy statue!!

25 11 2009
366weirdmovies

A few reasons I didn’t like it: there wasn’t any tension when they initially had to decide whether to press the button or not, because there was no reason for them to believe the box’s powers were real. It seems some sort of a demonstration of Steward’s mystical powers would have been easy to add. Heck, I would have pushed the button just for a lark, never believing the setup was anything but a prank. That’s not a valid moral test. The middle part was creepy and, let’s face it, weird, but was really just filler. What the heck did the husband choosing one of the three portals have to do with anything? Finally, at the end, the movie (probably accidentally) suggests that there was no free will involved in pushing the button (can’t get into more without spoilers). Frankly, this was badly scripted and full of plot holes.

25 11 2009
cinematronica

How is it that Donnie Darko, which is similarly scripted (i.e. obscurely and with the omission of a number of important details) can be considered good while The Box is bad? Darko was full of holes that only make sense if you research it, like all of Kelly’s films, but I have heard you sing that film’s praises. I think we’re discounting the real reason Kelly’s films are powerful, and that is their unmistakable mood. There’s a sinister air about all three of Kelly’s films, and while Southland Tales blew it wide open by taking it to a comical conclusion, Darko and The Box maintain it with a real flair. I think that analyzing The Box, like a Lynch film, will only take away from its mystique and deformed oddness. I think one could enjoy it if you just let it take you away to the strange world it inhabits. I do agree about how it’s not a fair moral test, but I still like how it played out in the beginning, because there’s really no logical tension if there was a chance they WOULDN’T press the button; if they didn’t press the button, there would be no movie, thus tension is thwarted by the very possibility of not pressing it. The only tension that can exist is from the consequences of pressing the button.

15 12 2009
366weirdmovies

Sorry so late with my reply. Here are some reasons I greatly prefer DARKO to this one: better characters, better acting, better direction, better subplots, a more original concept. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance > Cameron Diaz’s, and I found no supporting performances in THE BOX to match Mary McDonnell or Patrick Swayze (I will admit Langella was good, though his makeup almost upstages him). Donnie is much more sympathetic and interesting than whatever Diaz’s name was; it seems that Kelly understands and evokes adolescence much better than he does middle age. The weird factor in DARKO was integrated in the whole movie, running through it like constant thread. In THE BOX, the weirdness seemed sandwiched in to the middle of the movie to pad out Matheson’s short story. This one just didn’t work for me, but viva la difference!

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