The Box

  • Year:2009
  • Rating:M
  • Director:Richard Kelly
  • Cast:Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella, James Marsden
  • Release Date:October 29, 2009
  • Distributor:Icon
  • Running time:115 minutes
  • Film Worth:$8.50
  • FILMINK rates movies out of $20 - the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

Although an improvement on Southland Tales, Richard 'Donnie Darko' Kelly's cryptic moody thriller has a far-fetched premise that is not helped by a script filled with holes.

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Richard Kelly has endured a torrid time since his 2001 debut Donnie Darko, a perennial get-out-of-jail card that is perhaps approaching its use-by date. The doyen of the US indie scene had film buffs clamouring hopefully for his Donnie Darko follow-up in 2007, but most were horrified by the garbled, overreaching hank of auterism-on-steroids that was Southland Tales. Skipping cinemas altogether in Australia, Southland Tales was a sprawling "sequel" to three apocalyptic graphic novels set in the very near future. The film splattered cameos from Kevin Smith, Mandy Moore and Justin Timberlake through a spaghetti of pop-cultural references that made David Foster Wallace's 1,000-page tome Infinite Jest look positively uncluttered.

So here he is attempting to stem the bleeding, and arrest a seeming slide into the space-time wormhole, by teaming up with a big studio for a more straight-ahead thriller. Working from Richard Matheson's 1970 short story Button, Button, Kelly has produced a moody and visually intoxicating star vehicle with The Box, but what disappoints this time around is not largesse or non-linearity, but rather a script riddled with holes. As the running time drags on, there is simply no getting away from the fact that the fundamentally ludicrous premise cannot take flight due to uneven pacing and a dearth of resonant scares.

It's not usually a good sign when a feature length script takes its cues from a source as slight as Matheson's tale, and The Box suffers from an overstretched plot as it follows the fantastical fall from grace of Norma (a distractingly de-glamourised Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden). The pair, with child, are suburbanites in seventies Richmond, Virginia who receive the titular wooden box on their doorstep in the early stages of the film. The man behind the box is the enigmatic Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who eventually shows his face to the couple, or at least most of it - one quarter of his scone is missing thanks to the wonders of digital make-up. Just as eerie as the missing scallop on Steward's left cheek is his message: Norma and Arthur will receive one million dollars simply by pushing a button located atop the box. As a consequence of their actions, however, an unknown person somewhere in the world will die.

The stakes never seem high enough for the simple reason that Arthur has a steady job at NASA, even if he has recently missed out on what was thought to be a sure-fire promotion. This is not Struggle Street, it's the middle classes, and - as far as slumming families in the cinematic universe go - the view could be a lot worse. The mid-seventies period details also feel like distracting window dressing, and mostly a means of sidestepping the complications of setting the premise in a virally interconnected modern world where everyone knows everyone. While Kelly's lustrous, digitally acquired images prove that the Panavision Genesis Camera is worth its weight in gold, his visual chops are in service of an increasingly nonsensical story.

 

The Box abounds with strange, tangential details - Cameron Diaz's character has four missing toes, and Marsden is set on building a prosthesis that will allow her to walk without a limp. While viewers might be nonplussed by some of these side details, it makes sense when you learn that Kelly has attempted to graft the story of his own parents' lives onto the plot. Diaz's foot injury is based on his mother, for instance, and Kelly's dad was famously a NASA man. Fleshing out Matheson's Spartan framework with details of his own family might seem an admirable way of injecting personality into a studio picture, but Kelly fails to improve a premise that seems unable to hold up for more than half an hour. Glimpses of Kelly's talents are here to be seen, but surely they'll be used in aid of worthier stories in the future. For now, it's back to the wormhole.

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