I was never fully engaged by Richard Kelly's 2001 debut feature DONNIE DARKO, though I admired its moody visuals and many of the performances. It was, by all accounts, a "promising first film". Kelly followed up with the outlandish, over-complicated and somewhat schizophrenic SOUTHLAND TALES, which was deemed by many critics to be one of the worst films of 2007. His third feature is a step back in the right direction, though what it amounts to is in some ways as questionable as that sophomore effort: THE BOX begins as a morality play, becomes a science-fiction thriller, and ends in a muddle of otherworldly trickery that seems to hint at the end - albeit a very slow one - of all humanity.
Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) reside in Richmond, Virginia, circa 1976. Arthur is a NASA scientist and a candidate for the space program, and Norma teaches drama at a local college. One morning while they are sleeping, a box is left on their doorstep. That afternoon a stranger (played with silken, polite menace by Frank Langella) arrives and tells them they have a choice: press the button on the box and gain one million dollars, with the knowledge that somewhere in the world a person they don't know will die. Or, they can not press the button and go on about their lives (though Norma's faculty tuition discount has been discontinued and Arthur has just received a letter in the mail from NASA); a million dollars begins to look pretty good.
A choice is made, though not a mutual one. In fact, more than one person ends up dead. And the bounty of a million tax-free 1976 dollars ends up leaving a bitter taste for those who survive the ordeal. But beyond all of that, a grand and potentially damning scheme is exposed that poses the question: what if the powers that be didn't play fair?
And here it becomes difficult to discuss the string of events that make up the latter two-thirds of the film without revealing some of the modest surprises found therein. At one point later in the film, Arthur is given a choice that, if he chooses badly, could result in "eternal damnation". When he poses the obvious "...and what if I refuse?", the flat response is: "Eternal damnation." THE BOX sums up rather harshly: you're damned if you do, and the rest of us are damned if you don't.
While Cameron Diaz is given top billing and - I will admit - is far better here than in most of her romantic comedies and weepy hospital dramas of recent years (which amounts to: put Diaz in simultaneous physical and moral peril, and she shines), it is James Marsden who really makes an impression. Langella has the quiet, sinister moments, but Marsden gets to show off a range of emotions that the Cyclops mask never allowed. THE BOX also benefits from much-improved overall design when compared to the messy, cluttered SOUTHLAND TALES; the earthy colors and designs of the Seventies give a richer feel to the surroundings, and Kelly conveys a strong mood through simple but effective camerawork in a film with almost no special effects . That is, other than Langella's ghastly, disfigured face.
To say that your current film is definitely better than your last is not necessarily high praise. Many eerie moments throughout THE BOX elicited giggles in the advance screening I attended. When Kelly pares down the more ridiculous aspects and eliminates the too-many, too-fractious subplots of his stories and allows darker moods to flourish, he succeeds. Perhaps his fourth film will be the one that pays off in full on all that promise. (Review by Steve Norwood - content provider for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas - AFFD)
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