The box itself is simple — no mechanisms or grinding wheels, no flashing lights or tinny sound effects — just a simple button in a simple box. With this button comes a simple rule; if you push the button you get one million dollars, but someone will die. So do you push it? The answer would seem simple enough: no. But let’s say the person who dies would not be anyone you knew…and of course, we could all use the money, right?
This conflicting decision is laid upon Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) in Virginia of 1976. After awakening to find the box left on their doorstep, they are visited by Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who’s graphic CGI facial disfiguration adds to his mysterious and detached persona. Steward explains the rules of this “financial opportunity,” giving them only enough information to make the choice. The money is real, and so is the consequence. The deceptively simple plot (and first 20 minutes of the film) makes a wild 180 degree turn to take us on a thrill ride full of tension and suspense.
The Box is an adaptation of the 1970 short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson (author of “I Am Legend”), which was used in the past as inspiration for a Twilight Zone episode in 1985. This 2009 version is written and directed by Richard Kelly, and while tossing nods to both the short story and the 1985 adaptation, he takes it in a twisted and convoluted direction, adding his own embellishments on the plot. Kelly’s previous works include Southland Tales and Donnie Darko, and The Box falls right into his distinct style for film-making and storytelling. I think the real genius was just the fact that he chose to remake something originally written by Matheson, who has a knack for creating chilling stories that come full circle.
While the trailer focuses mainly on the big decision of whether or not our characters will push the button, this is far from the whole story. In fact, the choice is made surprisingly early in the 115 minutes of The Box, and the rest of the movie takes off on tangents that you don’t expect. There’s a constant theme of cause and effect; each choice that is made in the film leads to a consequence and yet another choice, again and again, until we finally come full circle. While the trailer is fairly misleading in that sense, it was probably the easiest way to make it. So to give you a little more insight (without giving too much away), The Box has elements that include: an Alfred Hitchcock ambiance; NASA’s Viking Program; Faustian propositions; conspiracy theories; Clarke’s Third Law; and Jean-Paul Satre’s play, “No Exit.” These may sound like an intriguing combination, but one slight downfall of The Box is the story itself. The web that’s weaved is complex and interesting, but at times the quid pro quo between Kelly and the audience is really put to the test as certain scenarios may require more suspended disbelief than the audience may agree to. The simplistic beginning steadily amps up into a fascinating frenzy, but nearly unravels all the intricate story threads.
Kelly takes the setting of the story to a whole new level. It didn’t feel like I was watching a movie based in 1976; it felt like I was IN 1976 watching a movie made in the same year. Key scenes are framed out beautifully, and Kelly uses heavy contrast lighting throughout the whole film that really sets the stage. The music fits perfectly as it consists of a Hitchcock-like orchestral score, but with a distinctively 1970’s flair. In a way it was as much a character in the film as Norma or Arthur. The piano swells during heart-rending scenes and staccato string-plucking adds to the anxiety and terror portrayed by the actors. Why can’t more movies take a note from this, instead of just taking the easy route with pop nostalgia? The Box’s beginning scenes with Diaz and Marsden felt a little overly melodramatic, but as the movie went on they began to warm up and fall into place with the rest of the retro ambiance. At times the script made them simply Kelly’s mouthpiece for moving the plot, but with the complexity of the story, it tended to be necessary. Though not allowed much space, Langella was convincingly sinister, detached, and took an excellent angle on a character that could very easily have become just another generic, creepy, older villain.
If you’re a fan of Richard Kelly’s movies then you will be a fan of this film, and it will quickly become another cult classic to add to your collection. For those who aren’t privy to his work or style, then the story (while occasionally a little too incredible and drawn out) is solid enough to leave most of you satisfied and thoroughly thrilled. Understand that The Box will be one of those movies that you either love or hate, and I happen to rest in the former. Either way, you will definitely have quite a few questions to discuss on the ride home. But if a movie doesn’t make you think a little, then what good is it after all?
I give The Box 4 “awfully tempting buttons” out if 5.