The Case for Richard Kelly’s The Box

boxkellyThe first Blu-Ray I purchased was The Box. I had other, more likely candidates on the way from Amazon, but I wanted something to watch with my new player. It was on special and I liked it a lot at the cinema, so I picked it up. The film got a fairly savage reception on release, tanking critically and commercially. I was curious whether it would hold up on second viewing.

My feelings for Richard Kelly’s work have been erratic, and I know I’m not alone in that. I did love Donnie Darko and was eagerly anticipating Southland Tales, and I refused to believe the reviews that proclaimed it a nonsensical cinematic travesty. I was confident that there was plenty to love, even if it was flawed. I was so impressed with Kelly’s distinctive style in Darko, oppressive yet warm, and so intrigued by his juxtaposition of philosophy and the everyday, that the prospect of him cutting loose with a massive, Phildickian sociopolitical SF canvas was utterly tantalising.

Then I saw the movie, and discovered it to the poorly thought-out dog’s breakfast so many reviews had damned it as being. I still admire Kelly’s ambition and his determination to work so against the mainstream and even arthouse grain, to the point of choosing even the oddest actors to populate an odd film (The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Christopher Lambert!). But the film seemed to slip away from him down the narrative rapids, filling up with idea after idea with no discipline whatsoever. It stands as one of the most fascinating cinematic failures of recent times.

So I approached The Box with hesitation, half-expecting another self-indulgent, obfuscating pseudo-narrative. Not so, it turns out. Although not perfect, particularly in that its central theme is ultimately too simplistic, this is nonetheless a creepy, tautly directed, wonderfully weird thriller that feels like the true follow-up to Donnie Darko, and a more sensible one too. Kelly needed a couple of smaller films like this under his belt before tackling something like Southland Tales – I’d wager it would have been much better if he’d waited.

The Box adapts a very short Richard Matheson short story into feature-length, wherein Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) are unexpectedly presented with a box by the charming Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who gives them the opportunity to press the button on top of the box and be given $1 million, at the price of the death of someone they don’t know. Once the button is pushed (hardly a spoiler, I hope), Norma and Arthur realise they are part of a larger experiment… 

The Box is more tightly constructed than Donnie Darko, although that film’s digressions were certainly engaging. Once the button is pushed, there is an inexorable slide into claustrophobia that Kelly achieves with first-rate cinematography, edited, music (the film is scored in a Herrmann-esque style by members of The Arcade Fire), and Langella’s eloquently empty performance as Steward (and the Blu-Ray immerses you in this strange, dripping sense of existential dread). Diaz and Marsden are affecting as well, despite some awkward opening scenes that are more the fault of bad editing than acting. They’re a convincing couple who draw us in to their fear, culminating in a wrenching finale that wouldn’t have worked without strong performances.

As the explanation for the Box unfolds, Kelly loses track slightly. Perhaps due to the strain of expanding a short story into a feature, a sequence with Marsden walking through a gateway of water (one of three, offering salvation or damnation) is eerie but surprisingly arbitrary. Apart from a meaningful question near the end, it is as if Donnie Darko is barging in mid-film for a thematic cameo. Kelly does this stuff so well that it’s easy to forgive on first viewing if you’re on board with such philosophical mysticism on film, but it’s ultimately tangential. All three of Kelly’s films unfortunately reveal his tendency to get carried away with his own ideas, causing the narrative to become overstuffed and inconsistent, but The Box does the best job yet of integrating them into a whole.

Also, Steward’s ’employers’ are handled enigmatically enough to be genuinely unsettling. So little information is given about where, when, what, and how, but there is more than enough allusion to make them seem truly otherworldly. However, the ultimate purpose of this experiment, if we go by Steward’s explanation, is simplistic and too absolutist for such apparently sophisticated forces. Unfortunately, since this is the foundation of the entire film, the moral questions are too elementary to be truly thought-provoking, even though the emotional toll rings true with us as compassionate viewers.

Many critics seemed almost offended by The Box, but it’s far more coherent than they would have you believe. Production values are first-rate, creating a finely calibrated piece with very little excess. Compared to Southland Tales, this is a restrained and polished film by Kelly that gives me renewed faith in him as a filmmaker. He’s not a one-hit wonder, and I hope he’s given the funding to try something new. He’s a distinctive voice and we need more of them, although I hope he challenges himself with something truly different this time. If he’s the filmmaker I believe he is, he’ll surprise his critics.

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