Regardless of how you feel about the film itself, the sticking point for The Box—mad scientist Richard Kelly’s latest oddity—is how well it succeeds as Kelly’s version of a mainstream, commercially viable bit of speculative fiction. Southland Tales, Kelly’s unjustly maligned sophomore experiment, was both viciously maligned by critics and a big bomb at the box office. The Box, very loosely based on an extra-short story by Richard Matheson, could then be his comeback, his shot at winning back the hearts of fans who prefer his filmmaking to be relatively grounded, more like his first feature, Donnie Darko. The trouble is that, to do that, Kelly effectively hobbles himself, refusing to really explore what he’s putting on the table and it makes The Box cool and restrained when it should be fired-up and barking mad. Still, even with half the creative energy of his previous films, Kelly’s attempt at being Christopher Nolan Lite is exciting, if not wholly successful.
Set in Arlington, Virginia around Christmas 1976, Kelly’s film begins with a re-creation of the 1986 Twilight Zone episode, originally titled “Button, Button,” that Matheson’s story was first adapted into. The biggest difference between the episode, which Matheson scripted, and Kelly’s adaptation is that while Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) have always been a mild-mannered, middle-class couple, in The Box they have extraordinary vocations: He works at NASA perfecting a camera for an impending launch to Mars and she teaches at a local high school, where Sartre’s No Exit is part of the curriculum.
Their dilemma, however, is the same: a stranger, Arlington Steward (an exceptional Frank Langella), makes a proposition. Before them is an unadorned box with a big red button in it. If they push the button, two things will happen: 1) someone they don’t know will die and 2) they will receive a cash award of $1 million to be delivered in-person by Steward.
The Lewis’ challenge ends fairly early on in the film (at the 37 minute mark if we’re to be exact) as it did in Matheson’s teleplay, even using the exact same lines the TV version of the characters employed. This is the first and most salient sign that Kelly’s not entirely interested in the ethical quandary Steward’s device presents. It’s where the film starts getting interesting, the point where Kelly begins to shy away from the seemingly direct, straight-laced approach that could make the film approachable and instead starts to explore his usual preoccupation with out-of-body experiences and confrontations with cosmic forces well beyond our ken. This is where the film starts to get weird and not a moment too soon.
Kelly defies the viewer’s expectations at every turn, inviting them to follow him as he provides countless inconclusive hints as to who and what Steward represents. Though one might expect, given Arthur’s work at NASA, that Steward is actually an alien, Kelly does not go that route. In fact, it’s telling that Kelly has Walter Lewis (Sam Oz Stone), Arthur and Norma’s young son, quote Arthur C. Clarke because in many ways Steward is a humanoid version of a Monolith. He’s an emissary of a higher power interested in testing humanity’s understanding of the vital necessity of empathic utilitarianism (help people, not yourself, stoopid). Other members of Steward’s organization show great interest in aiding NASA in its attempts to establish whether life on Mars is possible because that would be where Steward’s masters are heading next, in anticipation of Man’s failure of the test of the titular box. You read that right: Kelly has God scouting out Mars for a new location to set up shop and start over. That’s the kind of out-there ideawork that made a lot of people want to give up on Kelly, especially since Southland Tales threw a myriad of similar provocations at the viewer with scatological zeal.
Nevertheless, the theological punchline of The Box is never overtly stated, leaving the viewer to piece it together. Langella’s Steward received an enormous scar on his cheek after being hit by lightning, an attack that killed him and then subsequently brought him back in the thrall of his current “employers.” His handlers are never associated with anything more futuristic or vaguely extraterrestrial than that freak occurrence, save perhaps for their box and the warehouse out of which Steward operates. Kelly’s more interested in Steward as a pseudo-religious emissary—he hints to an underling that humanity is being tested, but never explains why. All we get in the way of an explanation is a scene where a herd of people, beginning a new test no doubt, is whisked away to an undisclosed location (perhaps they’re off to re-enact Red Planet Mars).
Similarly, Arthur is later presented with a second challenge that echoes the mystical one faced by the three protagonists in No Exit: He’s asked to choose one of three portals, two of which lead to “eternal damnation.” To do this, he must pass through a column of sentient water not unlike the kind that accompanies time travelers in Donnie Darko, a funny little inversion of the normal elemental association one might make given the intemperate destination his decision could take him to. That divine water is one of Kelly’s token signs, a way in which he explores the possibility of transcending one’s body somewhere or even sometime else. Which is to say: the trip that it takes Arthur on is like a truncated version of the one 2001 took Dr. Dave Bowman on, but what it accomplishes apart from being trippy and/or possibly spiritually evolving is a real mystery (“I like a mystery,” Steward tells us. “Don’t you?”).
Kelly does not speculate enough as to what comes next to be truly daring, which is disappointing considering how far out on a limb he’s coaxed the viewer into going by this point. The film shuffles around its big ideas and never settles on enough of its smaller ones to be cogent, if not just in a strictly plot-based way. Kelly’s biggest gift has always been his willingness to screw around, to dabble with ideas, allusions and, yes, Mysteries that are infinitely bigger than his characters. Here, we’re just left in the dark alongside the Lewis’s and as exhilarating and alienating as that may be, that’s just not good enough anymore.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.