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The Box (2009) *** – David’s take

February 23, 2010

The Box (2009) poster 2


written by: Richard Kelly (story by: Richard Matheson)

produced by: Richard Kelly, Sean McKittrick & Kelly McKittrick

directed by: Richard Kelly

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.

115 min.

U.S. release date: November 6, 2009

DVD & Blu-Ray release date: February 23, 2010



Writer-director Richard Kelly’s new film is being described by some as psychological horror while others are seeing it as a science fiction thriller. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with his films (“Donnie Darko” & “Southland Tales”) since it’s so obvious he defies those genres and how we’ve come to know them while incorporated them into one absurd film. That’s not an insult. An original, well-made film that hooks you despite it’s absurdity can still be intriguing when it’s not boring, maybe even entertaining. It’s not hard to get lost in this film’s tone and atmosphere but it’s also easy to get frustrated at how convoluted and overambitious it gets. That may wind up pushing your buttons which could be exactly what Kelly is aiming for.

The film starts out like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” and sure enough, it was made into one back in the mid 80’s. Kelly adapts the short story “Button, Button” by the great Richard Matheson into the first 15 minutes of the story. But then he jettisons it into an assortment of confounded directions. 

First, we read an internal CIA memo typed across the screen. It states that a severe burn victim named Arlington Steward has recovered and is delivering units related to the Mars project. We are then introduced to Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis, a loving married couple living in Richmond, Virginia circa 1976. They live in a nice brick home in a the seemingly idyllic suburbs where a school bus picks their son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone) right at their front step. Arthur works at NASA Langley doing research for the Viking mission to Mars and Norma teaches high school literature, specifically Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. When Arthur doesn’t get the job he was hoping for and Norma is told that she will no longer get a discounted on Walter’s tuition, they start to realize that they will soon no longer be able to afford the life they wish to maintain.


Enter the mysterious Mr. Steward (Frank Langella), a polite, well-dressed older man with a grotesquely disfigured face offering them a life-changing opportunity. He presents them with a box that has a unit inside containing a button. He gives them an envelope with a key to unlock the bubble dome housing the button. Steward tells them if they press the button two things will happen. First, someone, somewhere in the world whom they do not know, will die. Second, they will receive one million dollars in cash. If they do nothing with it, Steward returns and takes the box back, never to be seen again.  The box will then be reset and giving to someone else whom they do not know. However they choose, Steward will return the next day at 5pm.

Kelly presents viewers with the required “what would you do?” as the couple deal with their moral struggle both together and individually. At first, logic is at play as they both wonder how any of it could be real.  How can they even know that this button will kill anyone? Is it an impossible choice? Is the decision obvious? Norma and Arthur then must decide if they could handle being responsible for someone’s death. Since Kelly doesn’t portray this couple as destitute, it’s hard to truly feel compassion for two people who already admit they live beyond their means and want to keep it that way. What remains on their mind is that money would help them with the life they desire. Not the life they need, mind you.


That’s where Matheson’s script ends and we enter The Richard Kelly Zone. It’s a dimension with that 70’s glow, a sharp HD visual delight and a compelling score by Arcade Fire. Where nose bleeds are at every turn, zombie-like people talk in catatonic mantras, and hotel swimming pools become portals to the afterlife. Admittance into such a world need only require a push of a red button. No, that’s not a spoiler since it wouldn’t be a feature-length film if the button wasn’t pushed. Unfortunately, the film is thrust the into the same sci-fi silliness that director Alex Proyas dropped on us earlier this year with the incomprehensible “Knowing”.

That’s too bad since Kelly opens up with such promise and suspense only to push you through several trippy Kubrickian sequences that distract us with more questions. There could very well be the work of aliens here, or divine intervention, maybe a top-secret government agency….it’s anyone’s guess really and clearly that’s the way Kelly wants it.  

This is a film where the plot and far-reaching concepts take the spotlight over the acting. That wouldn’t be so bad if there was a growing strength in the story or if the acting had felt real. Langella does stand out by bringing some class to his ominous bad guy that could have veered toward camp. It’s ironic that the guy who played Skeletor at one time is now playing the bad guy with half his face off.  Too often, the emotions of the two leads felt forced and their behavior unrealistic.  It was difficult to detect the needed chemistry between Diaz and Marsden which is problemic since it was already hard to feel sorry for these two.  Plus, both of their southern accents seemed unnecessary and distracting since they were inconsistent at best. I wound up feeling worse for their son, who always seemed to get brushed off to the wayside. No surprise really, since children are too often treated like a device in these stories.

While Kelly’s feverish imagination tends to swallow this movie whole, it really is quite involving while you’re watching it. During reflection and post-viewing discussion is where all the plot holes and flaws become clear. But, who knows, this may become one of those midnight favorites at the local art house. Like the titular box,  it’s hard to take your eyes off the film and decipher what it’s all about when you’re sitting there staring at it. Only when you spend time away from it do you start to questions its real function. It may be missing the quirk and twisted charm of “Donnie Darko” but nevertheless fans of that cult classic will still want to check this out.

The Box (2009) poster 1

4 Comments leave one →
  1. windi permalink
    February 23, 2010 5:41 pm

    I liked Donny Darko, strangely enough. Quirk and twisted charm. LOL. Good description.

    Interesting that you gave it 3 stars and yet the actually description didn’t sound 3 stars-ish, if you know what I mean. Which goes to show exactly what you said: It’s engaging and great to watch, but don’t think too much afterward or it all falls apart. Hmmm….

    I may eventually check it out…

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 23, 2010 6:18 pm

      Rating reviews is such a fickle thing! Much of my rating has to do with the fact that Kelly is so good at making you try to figure out what’s going on, building atmosphere and then jettisoning it all into who knows where. His film before this one, “Southland Tales” is a trippy piece of work, it’s ballsy even….but trying to really figure it all out? Forget about it. I don’t mind directors like that. As long as they don’t bore me or totally ripcord me out of the viewing experience. I recommend this just to see what others think about it. Kelly goes every which way with such a simple initial concept. I gotta respect him for that.

  2. windi permalink
    March 25, 2010 6:24 pm

    I watched this last week at a friends house. I think I have to agree with your rating. I’d give it 3 stars just because I was totally engrossed—but at the end of the movie, I was completely and utterly lost!! LOL I was sooo confused. So many questions at the end of the movie! Who are “they who control the lightening”? Why are they ‘testing’ mankind? WHAT is the deal with the water? And it’s not fair that the guy with the burned face doesn’t tell the people the REAL truth.

    Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been so confused with a movie in ages! Yet, I couldn’t have stopped watching if I tried!

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      March 26, 2010 1:15 am

      It’s just like any other Richard Kelly film….you oughts check out “Southland Tales”, it’s even kookier!

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