THE BOX Review:
- Donnie Darko, despite the constant arguments about whether it's overrated, underrated, etc., was a formative movie for me during my college years. It's one of the movie that really made me love movies the way I do now, and it's a movie that, at the time, pretty much blew my mind. After seeing DD, I knew that the guy behind it, Richard Kelly, was someone whose work I'd follow intently from that point forward. And it's been both fascinating and somewhat frustrating to watch the films that Kelly has done since. While he was responsible for a couple of things immediately following Donnie Darko (the script for the underrated Domino, for one), it was the epic, years-in-the-making sci-fi satire, Southland Tales, that was to be Kelly's true second act. I was chomping at the bit to see Southland Tales, and I made it a point to see it in the theater upon its release. It turned out to be one of the strangest, most insane movies I've ever seen. There were things about it that were incredibly fascinating, and some things that in their own, weird way were actually really cool. But at the end of the day, Southland Tales was a trainwreck of epic proportions. It was like a movie version of a middle-school boy's fever-dream notebook doodles, laced with LSD. It seemed to be, unfortunately, a sign that Richard Kelly was a guy who had a certain spark of creative genius, but also a guy who was simply unable to focus that creativity into anything resembling a coherant vision. Southland Tales was, in some ways, so disasterous of a movie that it's sort of amazing to see Kelly back and doing a big studio movie - a high profile adaptation in the form of THE BOX. And yet here he is, and I was ultra-curious to see how it turned out. Like I said, to me Richard Kelly is someone whose movies are always worth checking out.
The weird thing is that The Box is like a case study in Richard Kelly's creative process. Because it starts out as a fairly straightforward, Twilight Zone-esque morality play. And then it keeps going past the point that a TZ episode would have ended, and it starts getting into bonafide sci-fi acid-trip territory - aka, Donnie Darko-style stuff. And then it keeps going past that, and soon enough we're going to some very weird, very dark places that we probably never should have gone to. At some point, Kelly loses his focus, and stops he altogether trying to contain his impulse towards having his stories take a turn for the bat$%&# insane.
The Box is, of course, based on a short story written by sci-fi icon Richard Matheson. Matheson wrote many memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone, as well as many famous short stories, etc. The Box is based on one of his stories that was later adapted for the 1980's revival of The Twilight Zone. The movie sticks to the same basic premise as the short story - a mysterious stranger knocks on the door of a young couple (here, it is circa 1976), and presents them with a simple box that is topped by a shiny red button. The stranger presents the couple with an offer - press the button, and he will give them a large sum of money (in this case, $1 million). The catch is that if they press the button, someone, somewhere, whom they don't know, will die. It's an intriguing concept, and perfect fodder for a half-hour Twilight Zone episode. And the opening of The Box plays out similarly to how a modern-day TV adaptation might have. That means that it's a little slow and drawn-out, but also intriguing. And Kelly sets a great, creepy tone for the movie, with a similar slow-burn, detached kind of storytelling to that of Donnie Darko.
It also helps that the main cast is very good. James Marsden and Cameron Diaz both do an excellent job, and both conform well to the specific tone that Kelly is going for. Marsden in particular does some of the best work here that I've ever seen from him. I definitely think he seems at home playing the kind of slightly quirky and offbeat type of character that he does in this movie. In the box, he is a protective husband and father of a young son, but he's also a NASA scientist and a bit of an obsessive type. And as the movie progresses and the madness piles up, Marsden does a great job of playing unhinged and desperate. Diaz is also pretty good, much more grounded and less glammed up than what we're used to from her. She also does a nice job of playing to the creepy, understated tone of the film. Meanwhile, Frank Langella is pretty much always great, and he is suitably creepy and commanding as the stranger who delivers the box. Personally, I thought that the CGI effect that made it look like half of his face had been burned off was a bit too much - it seemed a bit too cartoony to me. But, Langella somewhat carries the movie in that every scene he's in, no matter how out-there, is compelling thanks to his dramatic presence.
It's really interesting, however, to see how the movie progresses once it gets past the half-hour point. You can almost see Richard Kelly's internal battle with his own creative impulses playing out on screen. At some points, it almost feels like the movie is playing out less like a Donnie Dark-style arty mind-bender, and more like a conventional Hollywood sci-fi flick. What I mean is, there is A LOT of weirdness in this movie, and many a WTF moment. But there are also times where Kelly seems tempted to just spell everything out for us, and have the characters more plainly spell out just what's going on. The end result is a weird hybrid of the two styles, and that makes for a feeling of incompleteness. We get a million hints at the big picture, a lot of teases ... so that we're left waiting for that one, final, Twilight Zone-esque money shot - that one big twist or reveal to end the movie on an true exclamation point. But Kelly never siezes the opportunity to end the movie with a bang, Rod Serling-style. Instead, the movie just keeps going, becoming increasingly esoteric, grotesque, and self-indulgent as it goes. When you think of The Twilight Zone, you think of simple stories with a great premise that pack a punch. The Box, on the contrary, just keeps getting more complicated and more indecipherable as it goes.
But I also want to emphasize that, for much of its running time, I was actually pretty engrossed in the movie. The cast, as I mentioned, does a stellar job. Aside from the main players, there's familiar character actors like James Rebhorn and Donnie Darko's Holmes Osbourne, who specializes in measured creepiness. And creepiness is something the movie has in abundance. That same sort of atmosphere-heavy, dreamlike vibe of Donnie Darko is present in this movie as well. It makes me wonder if it might ultimately play better as a midnight movie in a college dorm than in a big multiplex theater. But Darko was Richard Kelly at his best - it was a singular vision, and it was a movie where the details of the trippy time-travel plot ultimately mattered less than the absorbing characters and world that they lived in. The Box is much more dependent on its plot, and therefore suffers more when the tone abruptly shifts or when various threads fail to add up to a cohesive whole.
That said, I'm glad I saw The Box, and would urge curious fans to check it out. It's a weird, flawed movie, but it's another instance where you've got to admire it for being so out-there and different. I was expecting a much more conventional movie, so at the end of the day, I guess I'm kind of relieved to report that The Box is just as crazy, in its own way, as anything that Richard Kelly has done before. I don't know if he'll ever make another movie that works as well as Donnie Darko, but man, it's going to be interesting to watch him try.
My Grade: B