PRINT November 2009


Richard Kelly’s The Box

Richard Kelly, The Box, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) and Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz).

RICHARD KELLY, the writer and director of the haunting and uncannily prophetic Donnie Darko (2001) and the much-reviled but spot-on vision of our hyperbolic, media-saturated political landscape Southland Tales (2006), has attempted to prove himself a viable mass-market director with The Box, a Twilight Zone–style sci-fi/horror movie inspired by cult writer Richard Matheson’s skeletal 1970 story “Button, Button.” Despite a clumsy allegorical premise telegraphed in risibly heavy-handed dialogue, the movie generates a free-floating anxiety that lingers long after the lights come up. Emerging from the theater, I saw glaring evidence on the faces of everyone around me that they were victims of a mind-control experiment of which they were entirely unaware. You laugh? I’m still not sure I can.

Set in Richmond, Virginia, during the Christmas season of 1976—the year that NASA’s Viking mission landed the first robotic research unit on Mars—The Box revolves around a middle-class couple and their tween son whose lives are disrupted by a mysterious, disfigured man bearing an odd gift. The father, Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), is a NASA scientist who designed the camera lenses used during the Mars mission. His wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz), teaches in the private school that their boy, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), attends. On the day the stranger, Arlington Steward (a dazzlingly understated Frank Langella), comes calling, Arthur and Norma have each received some bad financial news: Much to the surprise of his boss at NASA, Arthur’s application to join the astronaut program has been denied on mental-health grounds; Norma’s school has revoked tuition privileges for children of faculty. While the film is an encyclopedia of precise mid-’70s detail—the riot of patterned wallpapers and upholstery fabric will induce many a queasy flashback to similar suburban “boxes”—the recession of thirty-three years ago plays as if it were today.

Steward’s gift is a small wooden box with a glass dome over a red button. It comes with a proposal: If Mr. or Mrs. Lewis presses the button, they will receive one million dollars, and somewhere, someone they do not know will die. After anxiously mulling it over, the couple decide it’s almost surely a sick joke, especially when close inspection of the box fails to turn up any transmitter or wiring inside. Pragmatic and irreverent as Eve and curious as Pandora, Norma pushes the button, whereupon we briefly see an unidentified person frantically dialing 911 from a pay phone to report a kidnapped child and, slightly later, the police entering a house where a woman lies dead on the floor and a little girl crouches, frozen in horror, in an upstairs bathroom. The woman, we soon learn, was murdered by her husband. Steward arrives at the Lewises’ with the million-dollar payment, which Arthur tries to return only to be told it’s too late.

Richard Kelly, The Box, 2009. Trailer

At this point, it may be obvious where the story is going; nevertheless, I’ll try not to give too much away, except to say that the Lewises find their lives invaded by sinister people who suffer from nosebleeds and look like refugees from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This being the holiday season, there are many family gatherings, with many unnerving incidents, and there is much pontificating by Steward, who, as NASA and its ruthless rivals at the NSA are well aware, was, at the moment of the Mars landing, the victim of a lightning strike that left him with half a face and a direct connection to a higher authority.

Kelly may have learned as much from the hacks (Robert Zemeckis) as from the masters (Stanley Kubrick), but the sense of claustrophobia and impending doom created by precisely skewed camera angles and floating camera moves, lenses that compress or stretch space, loving attention to everyday places and objects under threat, a few shock edits, and a Hitchcock-worthy score by three members of Arcade Fire makes the experience of the film far more intense than my plot description suggests. Still, The Box is no Donnie Darko—and there is no teenage Blakean visionary to save the innocents of a world he believes is doomed. But, oddly enough, there might have been. Not until the final moments, when the camera closes in on Walter, alone, looking down from his bedroom window, do we realize that The Box should be read as a memory piece, filtered through the experience of an eleven-year-old who is trying to make sense of the terrifying things he overhears or half-understands: Why do some dads kill their wives? Why are some children blind, deaf, or abandoned? Where does science merge with science fiction or religion? And who exactly is pulling our strings and pushing our buttons? In real life, the lenses used on the Mars Viking mission were designed by Richard Kelly’s father. The director says The Box is his most personal movie. And it shows.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.