Box, The: Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly’s Problematic Film

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The verdict is out there: Based on three films, it’s still hard to tell how gifted and skillful Richard Kelly is as a writer and director?  

Kelly is certainly ambitious, tackling large-scope movies that are grounded in our zeitgeist, both socially and politically. He made a splashy debut in 2001 with the haunting and prophetic “Donnie Darko.” However, in 2006, he experienced sophomore jinx with the messy hyperbolic satire, “Southland Tales,” which was booed at its world premiere at the Cannes Film Fest and failed wherever it played. 
Three years later, Kelly is back with a more accessible and interesting picture, simply titled “The Box,” though the film is not simple at all.  A “Twilight Zone”–style sci-fi-horror, inspired by writer Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button,” “The Box,” Kelly’s most personal film to date, is severely flawed for many reasons.

At the center of the movie is a moral dilemma: What would you do if offered the opportunity for great wealth, in this case $1 million, but the offer came at the cost of a human life of a person you don’t know. Inevitably, any story about money, especially unearned money, is bound to deal with issues of morality and ethics and all kinds of unpredictable repercussions.

Unfortunately, not many people would ask themselves these questions, due to the fact “The Box” is not likely to attract the kind of mass audiences that Warner (domestically) or the Weinstein Company. (internationally) hope for, despite the presence of star Cameron Diaz.

Like writer Matherson, Kelly aims to create a deceptively simple tale that’s entertaining yet haunting. And the first half fulfills those expectations, due to the unpredictable nature of the film (you really don’t know where the story is going) and tantalizing cliffhanger of an ending. It’s the central chapters that are weak and disappointing.
“The Box” strives but doesn’t always succeed to be an elegantly told suspense story as well as character study of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) an “average” couple whose existence is defined by the same concerns and aspirations as those of other middle-class Americans. There is nothing fatally flawed about the duo, nor is there anything special about them. They’re good, hard-working individuals, who are raising a child, trying to get by, but clearly are living beyond their means.
Context is crucial: “The Box” set in Richmond, Virginia during Christmas of 1976. Among other things, 1976 was a year of achievement: NASA’s landing of the first robotic research unit on Mars, the Viking Mission. The landing on Mars was such a significant accomplishment that some greater intelligence decided it was worth taking our measure as a species.
Embedding the story into this specific historical setting, and in suburbia (Kelly’s favorite locale) introduces the possibility that there could be forces at work behind the Lewis’ morality test that are beyond their imagination. Moreover, three decades ago, when the story is set, pushing a button was a more deliberate act than it is now.
As the story opens, Arthur is informed that he has been denied his eagerly expected promotion, which means that their young son will no longer attend the region’s best school, and Norma will have to forgo reconstructive surgery for a lifelong painful injury.
Vulnerable to the point of desperation, the couple then receives an unexpected visit from Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), an enigmatic gentleman who makes a bizarre proposition in the form of a modest wooden box with a red button.   In essence, what Steward offers them is the possibility of escape, an opportunity for improvement.
Where does the box come from? What does it mean? Could the people who push that button hope to redeem themselves? Curious and practical, Norma pushes the button, whereupon we see a person dialing 911 from a pay phone (this is 1976) to make a report of a kidnapped child. Upon arrival at the scene of the crime, the police find a dead woman on the floor, leaving behind a terrified young girl locked in the bathroom. Who killed the woman?
As promised, shortly after, Steward arrives at the Lewises’ mansion with the payment. After some discussion, Arthur tries to return the money but he is told it’s too late.  What happens next cannot be told here, or else the fun will be spoiled. 
Short on gory violence, “The Box” is sort of a retro thriller, though it’s not a typical yuppie couple-in-peril yarn that we have seen before.  The movie is almost consistently scary, on both visceral and psychological level. The family is being pursued by a mysterious man who’s watching every move, which creates a foreboding sense of fear and paranoia. 
Though set in the 1970s, the story is more relevant today. As a writer, Kelly is onto something, realizing we live in a globally-driven, media-saturated world, where almost everything could be achieved quickly (within seconds) from a distance, like pressing a button. He is intrigued by the complexity of the instant-gratification, push-button society we live in, with handheld devices, TV remotes, computers, cels, and so on. We often send messages without giving much thought to the consequences or ramifications of our acts. But there’s always price to be paid.
In developing the short story into a feature, Kelly has semi-successfully expanded the characters of Norma and Arthur Lewis so that their conscience crisis would be more palpable and relevant to contemporary audiences.
As played by Diaz and Marsden, Norma and Arthur come across as decent, likeable, honest people viewers can relate to, perhaps even identify with. Reportedly, the characterizations are based on Kelly’s own parents.  Kelly’s father was an engineer at NASA Langley for 15 years, and, like the Lewises, Kelly’s family lived in Richmond. The helmer’s mother was a victim of medical malpractice resulting in the kind of injury that Norma copes with in the film.
Problem is, “The Box” raises many provocative issues without really dealing with them in any significant or satisfying way. Among those are, to what extent will you go to save your family? How well do you know the people around you? How well do you know your own family? Moreover, intentionally or unintentionally, several crucial plot points are left unanswered, which would frustrate the more mainstream viewers.
“The Box,” like Kelly’s previous work, is more ambitious in intent than accomplished in results.  Ultimately, the film comes across as a half-baked, borderline pretentious allegory about responsibility, asking viewers to contemplate about their extent of sacrifice for their loved ones and raising two crucial questions: What responsibility are you willing to take for your actions? What does it mean to be responsible for another human being and what are the parameters?
This review was writen by Richard Wenham and Emanuel Levy.