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The Box

It's no <i>Donnie Darko</i> says Rachel Winterbottom on the latest film by Richard Kelly

Written by . Published on December 8th 2009.

The Box

Richard Kelly is back once again after following up his sleeper hit, Donnie Darko with the misfiring mind-mash, Southland Tales. The high concept writer/director usually goes with the ‘what would happen if?’ style of storytelling. So far we’ve had a plane engine falling through a roof, world war III and now he’s trying to tempt us with the Big Red Button.

There are some clever twists, and it isn’t as bewildering as Southland Tales, but ultimately this film is daft 12A nonsense

A normal, suburban couple are visited by a stranger with a box. They are told that if they press the Big Red Button, two things will occur. One: someone in the world who they don’t know will die. Two: they will be given one million dollars. They have 24 hours to decide.

Cameron Diaz is Norma Lewis, a teacher who is forced to reveal that she lost four toes in an accident when a creepy kid with a foot fetish questions her about it in front of her class. This seemingly innocuous scene forms the basis for an infeasibly large wedge of the plot.

James Marsden is NASA employee Arthur Lewis, the husband who loves his wife so much he uses company hours to make her a bespoke foot for Christmas. It’s no wonder he failed the physiological test he had to pass to be an astronaut.

At first the couple see the box as a joke. After a peek inside reveals that the device is empty, they wonder how serious the offer could be. But then the desperate pair start to mull it over. After all, they have a lovely house and a new car; they could really do with a pool. Perhaps if the couple’s money situation actually had been dire, the audience would be more sympathetic to their plight. The reality is that the worst consequence of not killing a stranger is that they might have to postpone Norma’s foot surgery.

Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) plays the delightfully named Arlington Steward – all twinkly eyed and half-melted face, the deliverer of the box is a suitably charming man. He’s the film’s highlight, along with the initial appearance of the mysterious nosebleeds, and a prophetic babysitter who’s more than she seems. Kelly knows how to set up his mysteries. But then he has to whip out the sci-fi card.

Based on a short story by horror maestro Richard Matheson called ‘Button, Button’ (first published in Playboy, fact fans), Kelly takes a relatively straightforward story and runs wildly into the night with it. It feels as if he’s merely dabbling with the philosophical. He presents his characters with an interesting dilemma, follows it up with slow-building intrigue and then surrenders all logic.

The film descends rapidly into the surreal. Steward’s gormless ‘employees’ multiply in number and lose their mystique, Norma’s mother has a distractingly large face, and Arthur risks eternal damnation simply trying to check out a library book. There are some clever twists, and it isn’t as bewildering as Southland Tales, but ultimately this film is daft 12A nonsense.

Disjointed plotlines and unanswerable questions were the hallmark of Donnie Darko, and it made for a darkly unique, twisted, strangely beautiful film. Perhaps Kelly’s unexpected success has gone to his head and he’s now doing a Shyamalan. Next up, a non-linear look at what would happen if we discovered only obese people could travel through time. Tagline: Why are you wearing that stupid fat suit?

There’s a final jeopardy moment for the couple: a test so ridiculous that Arlington Steward (still a great name) might as well have said, “I’m sorry but your son now has a pineapple for a head and the only way of returning him to normal is if you replace your wife’s arm with a banana.” Only that would have deprived Kelly of his joyless ending.

Know this: if you watch this movie, two things will happen. One: you will come out wishing you’d gone to see Paranormal Activity instead. Two: despite this, you will still find yourself debating whether you would have pressed that Big Red Button.


The Box (12A) is on general release now.

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