After the crash-and-burn reception of his ambitious sci-fi mishmash Southland Tales, Richard Kelly retreats to the safe confines of mainstream genre filmmaking with The Box—or, at least, he does so for the first 15 minutes, at which point his latest goes spiraling off into delirious lunacy. Based on a Richard Matheson short story that was previously adapted as an ‘80s episode of The Twilight Zone, Kelly’s film concerns English schoolteacher Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) and her NASA-employed husband Arthur (James Marsden), who, in 1976 Richmond, Virginia, receive a mysterious package on their doorstep one early morning. Inside is a small wooden box with a red button underneath a locked glass dome, as well as a note promising a visit from Mr. Arlington Steward (an iconically creepy Frank Langella). Later that day, Steward arrives—dressed in a dapper long coat and hat and sporting a giant, unsettling burn scar on his left cheek and neck that leaves tendons exposed—to offer a deal: If the button is pushed, the couple receives a million dollars, but also, somewhere, someone they don’t know will die. (Spoilers herein.) No surprise that, after much deliberation, and despite the fact that Norma, Arthur, and their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) are fundamentally decent, the button gets pushed.
From that point forward, however, The Box is anything but predictable. In fact, the word “insane” repeatedly comes to mind, though that insanity manifests itself slowly. Kelly spends a good deal of his story’s first half painting a sympathetic portrait of his protagonists’ love for one another, which is most fully expressed during a poignant, largely silent sequence in which Arthur presents to Norma, who’s afflicted with a painful limp thanks to losing four toes on one foot as a teen, a rubber mold to facilitate walking. The director indulges in a bit too much attention-grabbing period detail, such as with the family home’s garish wallpaper, yet despite the décor, talk of long sideburns, and sights of streets lined with big American cars, The Box is, at least initially, character-driven, a situation that engenders sympathy even as the film tunes itself to a (figurative and literal) outer-limits frequency. To reveal the specific post-button-pushing developments would be a sin, as the material derives great verve from delivering audacious, unexpected craziness. But suffice it to say that a NASA project involving Mars, blank-faced zombies with bloody noses, and—in a deliberate attempt to evoke, and meld this story’s mythos with, Donnie Darko—pulsating ectoplasm/water and detailed fantasy-science manuals all factor into the space-case action.
Though his narrative’s morality-play suspense and Bernard Herrmann-esque score recall Hitchcock, Kelly seems to have selected the ‘70s so that he can fully channel early-years Steven Spielberg, drenching his sci-fi saga-cum-family drama in a soft visual haze and fuzzy whites that, especially in ominous widescreen compositions of NASA hangers gushing unholy light and cavernous wind tunnels carved in rubble, strive for Close Encounters grandeur. Still, Kelly’s symbiotic visions of the domestic and the intergalactic are fundamentally idiosyncratic. And though his instincts periodically lead him toward kookiness (Body Snatchers ritual gatherings; a 2001 cross-dimensional trip through the afterlife), he nonetheless strikes a sure-handed balance between the outrageous and the mundane in a way that eluded him in Southland Tales.
The Box wrestles with issues of greed, altruism, and one’s vital place in the (local, global, universal) community, this last notion addressed directly through the ramifications of the Lewises’ opening choice, and implicitly suggested through the recurring setting of Norma’s sister’s wedding, a celebration of the very interpersonal unity that Steward’s deal seeks to test. One moment, Kelly is locating the pain of social solitude in Norma’s heartfelt profession of love for the similarly crippled Steward, and the next, he’s tapping into supernatural-tinged paranoia and conspiracy theory fatalism via Area 51-Big Brother madness. Which, in the end, makes The Box uniquely bonkers, and the better for it.