First published by EyeforFilm
What does it mean when a person is struck by lightning? Is it an act of god? A freak of nature? A cosmic joke? An alien intervention? Magic? Inspiration? Punishment? And what of other, more human tragedies, resulting – directly or indirectly – from our own negligence, selfishness and moral blindness?
Writer/director Richard Kelly himself arrived like a bolt from the blue with his stunning feature debut Donnie Darko, and, as though to prove that lightning really can strike in the same place twice, has since melted minds and split audiences, penning the screenplay for Tony Scott’s underrated and misunderstood meta-biopic Domino and directing his own impenetrable script for the postmodern noir apocalypse Southland Tales. Kelly’s unusual willingness to use familiar genres as a mere staging ground for grand, complicated ideas and brain-paining paradoxes ensures his films demand that viewers watch actively, keep their minds open and work hard with him in the construction of meaning. The reward is a cinematic labyrinth in which you can remain deliriously lost for days, and whose exploration might just take your thoughts to all kinds of unexpected or challenging places. His latest, The Box, is no exception.
The basic premise of the film, drawn from both Robert Matheson’s 1970 short story Button, Button and the 1985 episode of the Twilight Zone that this story inspired (co-scripted by Matheson under a pseudonym), is easy enough to summarise. Just when couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) are down on their luck, the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) drops in (at Christmas) with an equally mysterious box, telling them that if they push the button on its top, he will give them a briefcase full of crisp, tax-free cash, and “someone, somewhere in the world, who you do not know, will die” – whereas if they leave the button unpushed, he will collect and ‘reprogramme’ the box for someone else to receive. A sceptical Arthur tinkers with the box, and discovers that there is no wiring or mechanism inside, but still Norma agonises over whether to push the button or not, without quite realising what the ramifications of her decision will be.
Though these barebones elements have been lifted wholesale from Matheson, Kelly has nonetheless made them his own by giving the Lewises a young son (Sam Oz Stone), and investing the material with aspects of his own biography. Now the setting is Richmond, Virginia in 1976, the time and place Kelly himself grew up; Arthur is, like Kelly’s father, an engineer at NASA Langley; and Norma, like Kelly’s mother, has been left permanently crippled by a case of medical malpractice.
Yet this describes only the first half of The Box. For what has attracted Kelly to Matheson’s story is not just its concrete centre, but also its shadowy contours, and the second, entirely original half of the film investigates further, without resolving, the enigmatic character of Steward and the question of whether redemption is possible in a closed moral system from which there would appear to be no exit.
It is here that the film shifts from creepily ominous to all-out crazy, as a range of conflicting matrices – scientific, philosophical, theological, metaphysical – are all suggested to account for the problem of evil. Steward, in particular, is fleshed out (if someone with half their face missing can properly be called ‘fleshed out’) as a man who has miraculously survived being struck by lightning, and who is now on a mission to put our so-called humanity to the test – and in yet another impeccable performance, Langella filters all his character’s sinisterness and sadness through an unearthly courtesy (and some truly horrific computer-subtracted facial make-up).
Kelly’s film plays itself out as a paranoid conspiracy thriller, but when action and consequence, chance and causality, religion and secularism, selfishness and altruism, the domestic and the cosmic all begin colliding head-on, it becomes clear that there is far more in this box than just a collection of genre-based sensations. Whether it is a profound probe into the human condition, or just preposterous piffle, will perhaps depend in part on what you are prepared to put into it yourself, but there are certainly more than enough high concepts here to keep the viewer stimulated, confronted and perplexed far beyond the closing credits – and like all Kelly’s films, The Box will benefit from multiple viewings.
The film’s loving attention to retro Seventies detail (from the décor of the Lewis household to Diaz’s channelling of Farrah Fawcett) is absolutely gorgeous to behold, and the old-school thriller score (by Win Butler, Régine Chassagne and Owen Pallett) is superb. But most of all, Kelly should be praised to the heavens for his willingness to juggle very big ideas and to engage with the thorniest of ethical questions, taking one couple’s seemingly straightforward dilemma and transforming it into a crux of apocalyptic dimensions and universal implications. Kelly delivers all at once an engrossing genre piece, an exceptional exercise in expansive adaptation, and a complex moral allegory, so that this is a Box that requires a lot of unpacking – which of course makes it the gift that keeps on giving…
© Anton Bitel