Director Richard Kelly loves to play around in the science fiction genre, and he really likes to get strange with it- with his first movie, Donnie Darko he put something out there on the screen that no one had really seen the likes of before, and it met with cult success. With his second movie, Southland Tales he got really ambitious, going way larger in scale, with a bigger cast and really big ideas, and it met with derision at the theatres (I liked it quite a bit my own self though), Now his third film is here, The Box and it’s easily his most accessible film to date, and at the same time, he manages to twist up the genre a bit, though this one has qualities that are much more classic.
It’s 1976 and the place is Richmond, Virginia. Arthur and Norma Lewis are a nice couple, he’s an engineer with NASA working on the Mars probe program and she’s a school teacher and they live an ordinary life with their young son Walter. There are struggles though, they live paycheck to paycheck and they further deal with a deformity of her foot that Norma suffered in her youth, but still this family gets by. One morning a mysterious figure by the name of Arlington Steward leaves a box at their doorstep, with instructions that he will come back to see them the next day with instructions for the contents of the box. The box contains another box, with a button on top of it and they are told that if they push the button on the box, a person that they do not know will die and further they will receive one million dollars tax free to do with what they will.
And that’s the starting premise of The Box, which is freely adapted from a Twilight Zone story that Richard Matheson wrote called “Button, Button.” Though Richard Kelly uses that as a pure springboard, for something even larger, building his own mythology for this with all sorts of twists and turns that come later- but further and most importantly, they all fit together and make for some extremely smart science fiction and at least in my opinion, Kelly’s best movie to date.
His setting is 1976, and he’s chosen to make the movie in such a way that it’s reflective of the period, though he certainly does use the benefits of today’s technology in telling that story, it’s nothing that’s too overt, so you’re not seeing massive amounts of CGI in place, no this is far quieter than that, but still very effective.
His story is very well layered, and touches on all sorts of areas, and while it’s strong in it’s sci-fi elements, it’s not at the expense of his human elements, in other words, you do give a damn about Arthur and Norma and of course that’s always welcome. I’ve already read complaints of the movie’s slow-pacing, and personally, I think it works here, events unfold naturally and not at all forced, but I think you have to be willing to let a movie do that to enjoy it- if you just want this to hit the high points all the time, then this won’t be for you.
While watching this, I was put in the mind of another science fiction film from earlier in the year, Alex Proyas’ Knowing with Nicolas Cage, both deal with some classic sci-fi elements and put their own twists to it, and at leas tin my mind, rather successfully.
Kelly’s cast is really strong here- James Marsden and Cameron Diaz are cast as Arthur and Norma and they are both just really great. I get more impressed with Marsden in everything I see him in and this might just be one of the most vulnerable parts I’ve seen Diaz play to date (and she still looks fantastic). Most importantly, they do have a solid chemistry together, which certainly pays off in the film’s climax. Frank Langella plays the mysterious Arlington Steward and he does a fine job here, though his role is to be somewhat cold and detached in what he’s doing, there’s still a subtle charm to him, and yet with this underplaying, he’s very much a presence in the film.
My expectations for this were relatively low when I went to see it, though I do have a fascination for Richard Kelly’s work, but still, this was the first of his movies that was getting a wide theatrical release and so the expectations are there somewhat that it’s final product might be a little diluted. While it is easily his most accessible movie to date, it’s not at the expense of elements that have been in his other movies- being a hard core science fiction element and multi-layered writing, they’re both still evident here, so I expect the biggest thing that’s changed is Kelly’s maturity as a filmmaker, and if The Box is an example of things to come from Kelly, then I can’t wait to see what he has in store for his future projects. The Box is highly recommended and if you don’t see it in theatres, at least manage it on DVD down the road.