Warner Bros. // 2009 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // February 23rd, 2010
Martin: "Sir? If you don't mind my asking...why a box?"
Arlington: "Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it. You drive home in it. You sit in your home, staring into a box. It erodes your soul, while the box that is your body inevitably withers...then dies. Where upon it is placed in the ultimate box, to slowly decompose."
Martin: "It's quite depressing, if you think of it that way."
Whenever you are a fan of director and writer Richard Kelly, you turn into an apologist offering explanations of why you like his films while others around you scream they are Rorschach tests or impressionistic messes. Donnie Darko was a fascinating cult hit that was watered down with the release of its inferior director's cut, and certainly Southland Tales was a sprawling mess of a movie that's hard to defend. Yet for some reason I still like the guy, and enjoy both of his films released before this one. The Box is almost a perfect union of the two, offering a middle ground for fans to cling to the promising parts of the first film and wail about the fact that there's still the scattered thoughts of the second. No matter how frustrated I get, I find Kelly interesting. I was excited to get my hands on The Box. I felt like someone had come over to my house, left me a mysterious button to push, and I would get a million bucks if I did.
The setup revolves around a six page short story from Richard Matheson, an author whose work was used as the basis for I Am Legend. A middle class couple is left a mysterious box on the front step of their suburban Virginia home. A disfigured stranger (Frank Langella, The Ninth Gate) shows up to tell the wife (Cameron Diaz, Vanilla Sky) they will find a unit with a button on it, a simple device that doesn't offer much more. If they press that red button two things will happen: they will receive, tax free, a million dollars in cash, and "someone they do not know" will die. And so the woman and her husband (James Marsden,X-Men: The Last Stand) debate what all of this means, and try to figure out if they will take this offer.
Of course the Matheson short story ends right around the time all of this button business is resolved. We learn if the couple pushes the dreaded thing or not, and what exactly the consequences are in either direction. Yet what Richard Kelly does here is he makes the couple his parents, gives them an extensive back story, and seeks to reveal more of what is behind the man and the box. He begins to weave in the "Richard Kelly treatment" by adding in supernatural aliens, mysterious water, body snatcher political parody, and nonsensical images such as a Salvation Santa ringing a bell in the middle of the road. Oh yeah, and did I mention there are a ton of nose bleeds?
If you're like me you'll find The Box interesting and rewarding on its own terms. Fair warning and full disclosure that I am a huge fan of Donnie Darko, and even found Southland Tales an interesting ride that engaged me. The Box didn't surprise me that by the end it was a muddy fever dream that looked fantastic but made little sense given the director's track record. I still liked the movie, and found it all well worth exploring. But I am here to tell you the last act is a mess if you try to analyze the plot points, and Matheson's original story should have never been expanded beyond the original parameters. What works best are the moments before the couple decide what to do, the hell and anguish they go through determining if an unknown life is worth a million dollars to them. All the rest is simply Donnie Darko style piled onto a pretty great scenario that gets played out in less than an hour. Kelly does not know when to stop, and perhaps somebody should sit him down and let him know he is starting to repeat himself. He has yet to have a really huge success at the box office, and I wonder how far his career can go if he just keeps spilling out stylish ambiguity. The good news is that he keeps things interesting enough to enjoy the rest of the ride: The Box feels like a spiritual sequel to David Lynch's Lost Highway, with a more science fiction bent to it.
The people in the story keep it moving along quite well. The cast is a great asset to the film, offering exactly what they need to for each character. Cameron Diaz is a sweet vulnerable mom who is hiding her own disfigurement as well as she can. You feel for her, and she comes off genuine and warm. James Marsden is the no-nonsense scientist father, and he gets the thankless role of keeping his head on straight in a film that does anything but that. Frank Langella makes for a great shadowy box dealer. He is not given much to work with, and may not even be human. Yet he somehow finds a way to render his character with a humanity that is endearing and disturbing simultaneously. His eyes say everything for him.
Warner Brothers provides a fully loaded Blu-ray in contrast to their rather slim DVD treatment. The high definition version has the featurette on Richard Matheson talking about his story, but it also includes a featurette featuring Richard Kelly and his parents talking about how the movie parallels their lives. We also get a look at the special effects process which included removing half of Frank Langella's face as well as returning Richmond back to what it looked like in 1976. Included are music video prequels and a digital copy as well as a DVD version. Also exclusive to Blu-ray is a director's commentary with Kelly explaining his take on the story. Based on the features, Blu-ray is the best way to go.
The transfer also is a step up. When you have a film that relies so heavily on visual style and creepy audio cues it's important to have the best out there. Colors are very well controlled, and even busier than the average '70s plaids, and patterns hold up well without any pixelation or digital artifacts. The level of detail in the picture is amazing. The sound design is well represented as well with plenty of directional effects, and very nice use of period rock music that never drowns the dialogue out. The Box is a very well designed film, and the Blu-ray supports that perfectly.
You probably already know if you're the kind of person who will enjoy The Box, and like me, little could keep you from metaphorically "pushing the button." If you're the kind of person who hates style over substance, or finds that movies heavy on imagery with little else annoy you then you're in the wrong place. I admit the setup is better than the payoff, but I enjoyed all three acts of The Box. Even when the narrative falls apart I had a great time looking for clues as to what Richard Kelly was trying to say. Many feared this would be his Hollywood "sell out" project, but how wrong those people were. There are no easy answers given here, and there is still tons to debate as the final credits roll.
The Box is a messy sci-fi thriller that plays with your expectations, and throws in twists no sane person would ever see coming. It's a handsomely designed period piece with strong acting and great technical elements. If you go in knowing that no matter what happens The Box is going to spin wildly out of control you'll be better off for it. Fans of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales already know what to expect, and the rest will just have to have faith they will be okay after they push the button. Ever the apologist, I'm sorry but I really enjoyed this one. It kept me interested, and I have to give a film credit for doing that.
Guilty of being a third Richard Kelly film offering a dark, twisted ambiguous
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Music Videos
* Cinema Verdict Review