Special Note: “In Defense Of” is a column series where I defend films that were not only panned in their initial release; that not only do I find to be pretty good, but also to hopefully encourage people to go back and re-evaluate them. So for the second installment, let’s begin with 2009’s The Box!
In some ways writer-director Richard Kelly is an enigma. He came onto to the scene in 2001, at the age of twenty-six, with his debut feature Donnie Darko — a film about a troubled teenager, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s visited at night by an imaginary rabbit-suited friend named Frank, who tells Donnie that world is soon to end, then manipulates him to commit a series of crimes while sleepwalking that soon takes things into time-traveling. While it was a flop on its original release, Donnie Darko over time catapulted into arguably the biggest cult hit of the 21st century. And it was in 2007 that saw Kelly follow it up with the dystopian Southland Tales, a post-apocalyptic, ambitious political satire starring Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott and Justin Timberlake. With it, once again, being a financial flop, Southland Tales slowly as well grew a cult fanbase over time. And while I’m a fan of those two films, it’s Kelly’s third (and as of now last) feature, The Box that has lingered in my mind far more than his others.
The Box, once again, saw the filmmaker seeing the apocalypse. Like his previous films, The Box was both a mix of sincerity and sinisterness, while as well being inevitably ambitious, a serious work that once again threw audiences for a loop. Continuing to play things ambiguously, it’s not too surprising that The Box received the infamous “F” CinemaScore — an exit poll process done at random US screenings asking audiences to give the movie they just saw a letter grade — landing The Box in the company of outright disasters like the Lindsay Lohan amputee thriller I Know Who Killed Me, as well as notoriously polarizing experiments like Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. The Box wasn’t the cut-and-dried, easy-to-follow mystery as it was marketed as, and for some, it was even more confusing than Kelly’s previous works, leading it to the underwhelming box office gross of $33 million on its $30 million budget. But, hey, what about some critical acclaim? Nope, The Box sadly came with a mixed-negative reaction with many finding it overcomplicated, messy, and, for some, confusing. (If you’re a fan of the critical aggregators, the film holds a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 47 on Metacritic.)
Yet with that negativity, The Box still seemed to fit right alongside Kelly’s other works. The similarities among all three of Kelly’s features are striking and deliver a worldview that puzzles through the great questions and packs his narratives to the brim. Based on Button, Button, a short story by I Am Legend writer Richard Matheson, The Box was the first of Kelly’s movies that he directed that he didn’t write from the ground up. Except that didn’t really matter, because while the short story was previously adapted in the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone, the story only runs about six pages with a much different ending and is merely a humble scaffolding for Kelly’s mazelike narrative, with its sharp and snaking turns, and various pathway choices. Navigating those pathways alongside the audience are Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) and her husband, Arthur (James Marsden), an attractive, seemingly happy middle-class couple who in 1976 are living in a pleasant Virginia suburb with their only son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone). Norma, a teacher at a private high school, and Arthur, an engineer at NASA who’s hoping to make the next step as an astronaut, are living, supposedly, tight financially. Until one day they receive an offer to earn a million dollars.
It’s one morning when a mysterious package appears on their front door. They open it and inside is a small wooden chest topped with a red game-show button. Not much later a man with a deformed face calling himself Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives with instructions. He says if the Lewises push the button, a person they don’t know will die, but they’ll receive a million dollars but they have twenty-four hours to decide. After some deliberation, they go for it. Building from that tight, intimidating moral conundrum, The Box slowly spirals into something far grander, mixing the intimate domestic with the otherworldly. The consequences of their decision are both strange and brutally inhuman. The Lewises have no idea why suddenly they start to be followed and watched. And neither do we. The movie leaves Norma and Arthur in order to follow their suddenly sluggish babysitter’s (Gillian Jacobs) stroll through some creepy motel called “The Galaxy.” There’s also a detour for a domestic crime scene across town and some doings at NASA, who just rejected Arthur’s astronaut application. It’s all alluringly random. Something ominous is going on, and the one of the film’s strongest pleasures is that we can feel it more than we can entirely understand it.
As the film progresses, building its own world and logic, it seems that Kelly read the original short story and then spent years wondering where the titular box and button came from, and decided to make a story to find out, transposing it to the time and place where Kelly came from; Kelly as well grew up in 1970s Virginia and his father worked for NASA and his mother, like Diaz’s character, had a club foot. But in the process of explaining the button, The Box raises as many questions as it puts to rest, fleshing out the story with queries about the nature of fate, allusions to Eve and Pandora, an atmosphere of post-Watergate paranoia, and heavy references to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Oh, and did I forget to mention the severed toes, the watery portals to another dimension, and the Mars Viking mission. Kelly clearly sees his movie as a homage to a particular sort of sci-fi thriller while also endlessly oscillating between horror, marital drama and conspiracy thriller: there’s glimmers of The Parallax View and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cinematographer Steven Poster delivers every scene with an ominous ’70s glow and the foreboding score by Owen Pallet and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne comes reminiscent of late-night black-and-white horror movies.
But obviously most important of all for a film with many different facets, Kelly’s direction remains pretty strong. He knows how to keep the tension mounting even when we’re still putting things together. He’s supremely in control of what happens insides his Kubrickian frames. The grim shots of TVs, cars, houses, and buildings suggest The Box isn’t just a button you push, it’s a depressive philosophy: we are weak, desperate, expendable. (There’s a speech that overly spells this out.) There’s a fine line, the movie says, between cosmos and faction. But Kelly hints at the possibility of spiritual rapture, too. Death, however it comes, is a liberation from the bodily box. And just when things suggest that there’s less happening here than meets the eye, yet whenever The Box threatens to crash, Kelly summons up another haunting image or heartfelt moral inquiry.
To look back and see how The Box struggled financially and critically becomes frustrating when you see how it might have been more successful today. In its wake, a number of Twilight Zone-esque thrillers began populating cinemas, with both Jordan Peele’s films — Get Out and Us — launching an entire cottage industry of spooky and socially relevant horror movies, and both of Ari Aster’s films — Hereditary and Midsommar — proving there’s a place in the marketplace for long and complex horror-chillers. Yet in 2009, The Box, with its heightened mystery, unwieldy ambition, and genre-bending, somehow seemed to miss the boat. Yet for a complex labyrinth about faith and fate, free will and destiny, The Box is a film in need of much re-evaluation.