14 December 2009

Movie Review: The Box


The Box
2009, 115mins, PG-13
Director: Richard Kelly
Writer (s): Richard Kelly, Richard Matheson (short story)
Cast includes: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Sam Oz Stone
Release Date: 6th November 2009

Based on a short story written by Sci-Fi maestro Richard Matheson “The Box” is an ambitious but heavily flawed motion picture. Directed by Richard Kelly, it has all the filmmaker’s quirky trademarks and is filled with his quizzical nature but somehow it just doesn’t come together like one might anticipate. Many have actually touted “The Box” as Kelly’s first proper foray into mainstream cinema following his cult favourite “Donnie Darko” and the perplexingly odd “Southland Tales” but in truth the movie is probably one of the least conventional pictures currently playing in multiplexes. The first 30 minutes or so fit into a robust but standard pot-boiler template but then “The Box” moves off into seriously surreal territory and asks many questions the audience are unlikely to expect. However there is such thing as too much and Kelly has stuffed his bonanza with overly fruitful ideas and designs, leaving the picture an intriguing but messy enterprise.

Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) are struggling with financial strain, neither is granted the professional path they were hoping for and as a consequence the future looks uncertain. One morning they are rudely awakened by the doorbell only to find a parcel sitting on their porch, the package containing a strange technological contraption and a note informing them that its prior owner will visit later. When he appears he turns out to be the charming but hideously scarred Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) and he has a curious proposal. The product left on their doorstep is a “button unit” and in exchange for pushing said button Steward will give the Lewis’s the exceedingly generous gift of $1 million. However there is a catch. By hitting the unit they will not only become rich but also claim a life, leaving them with a moral dilemma like few others. They won’t know the deceased nor will Steward ever make contact with them again but as things surrounding them become stranger and life more troubling the Lewis family may be left with no choice.

“The Box” starts on a hugely simplistic idea and works it into a story that evolves to include NASA, masses of seemingly possessed people and science fiction malarkey concerning Mars. Basically it’s what you pay for when taking a trip through the eyes of Richard Kelly. This is a movie that I genuinely wanted to like and in honestly I was encouraged by the stylish trailers but “The Box” isn’t the film that promotional material suggests. It’s a deeper and more ambitious effort for a start but it also never finds the thrills or excitement hinted at in previews, and from a narrative standpoint it has far more content than it needs. I’d rather sit through an original and intellectually admirable failure than an ordinary and consistently dull studio piece of the same standard but mediocrity is mediocrity and “The Box” unfortunately suits such a moniker.

The performances are one of the high points, Diaz and Marsden make an agreeable couple and each develops their individual character surprisingly well given the preposterous contortions of the picture. Diaz in particular gives it a strikingly heartfelt go, nursing character traits soundly and working to build a fizzy rapport with other screen presences. These are essentially people you route for and the film does allow the audience to place themselves within the couple’s shoes via several dialogue heavy exchanges, at least on this point Kelly has done his job well. Langella is also impressive as the mysterious and iffy Steward, chilling and charming with equal measure. From an acting perspective “The Box” has fuel for the fire, but sadly Kelly can’t ignite the other elements to a satisfactory degree.

“The Box” opens promisingly enough and despite the normalcy the first 40 minutes are probably its best. Kelly utilises suspense and some disturbing imagery neatly during this segment, the problems arise when he starts to throw in further additives with sledgehammer subtlety. “The Box” clearly wants to be another weird Richard Kelly film but by the finish it’s not far from incomprehensible, the middle third a particularly drab and self indulgent mash up of added characters, twists and soul searching mystery. I’m certainly not a card carrying member of the “Donnie Darko” fan club but I can see why it’s a good film, such an epiphany never arrives during “The Box”. Lovers of wacked out movies might find more to like than most but excessive amounts of what “The Box” is pushing doesn’t work.

Aesthetically it captures the 1970’s with a sweet eye and some amusingly retro soundtrack choices but these can’t disguise the storytelling discrepancies and disconnected rambling. I will always be willing to slap a filmmaker on the back for taking risks but with “The Box” it appears Richard Kelly’s luck has run dry. Maybe next time he’s given a potentially marketable cinematic property he should tow closer to the line and give himself a chance to steady his feet, if not only so he might return to form and deliver the follow-up his early career impatiently demands.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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