Feb 6, 2020
The Box (2009)
Famed sci-fi/horror writer Richard Matheson passed away last week at the age of 87. Count Jackula’s overview of his career, along with David Rose’s review of the Twilight Zone movie that he co-wrote, inspired me to take a look at one of the two most recent films (along with 2011’s Real Steel) based on a Matheson story.
The Box stars James Marsden and Cameron Diaz as a hardworking couple in 1976 Virginia. He’s a NASA engineer working on the Viking Mars mission, and she’s a school teacher who walks with a peculiar limp. One day, a disfigured man named Arlington Steward comes to their door, played by Frank Langella, who’s been given the Harvey Dent treatment with a large chunk of his face missing. We can actually see his teeth through a hole in his cheek, which surely would make eating difficult, were he not a man who has clearly evolved beyond eating.
Steward has come bearing a box containing a button, as well as an offer for the couple. All they have to do is push the button, and they will receive one million dollars in cash, tax-free. The only catch is that someone, somewhere in the world that they don’t know will die.
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This initial setup comes straight from Matheson’s very short story “Button, Button”, which was previously adapted into an episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone revival. There’s not much to the original story (it’s about ten pages long in a recent edition), and not much to the Twilight Zone episode either, but a movie version certainly could have expanded upon the premise and become a smart, taut conspiracy thriller… in the hands of the right screenwriter and director. Instead, the story was adapted by writer-director Richard Kelly.
After two confusing, overindulgent films (cult favorite Donnie Darko, the not-so-cult favorite Southland Tales), the trailers for The Box gave hope that Kelly had finally made a straightforward thriller that wouldn’t require hours of internet research to fully comprehend. Alas, it turns out to be another exercise in drowning a relatively simple concept in oblique excess.
Back in the early 2000s, Kelly was hired to adapt the children’s novel Holes, a story about kids sent to a camp for juvenile delinquents where they’re forced to dig for buried treasure. Kelly turned it into a dark, post-apocalyptic tale set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, where the kids were instead digging to find a hidden cache of weapons for the military. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and that script was never produced.
And yet, this is precisely what Kelly has done to “Button, Button”. Sadly, this time, nobody was around to stop him.
He’s turned a brief morality tale into a wild conspiracy yarn involving Mars, sinister public libraries, the NSA, the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, mysterious nose bleeds, amputated toes, Arthur C. Clarke, and towering blocks of CGI water that allow you to briefly pass into the afterlife. It’s almost as hilariously muddled as Southland Tales, with the key difference being that Southland Tales was trying to be funny.
I doubt it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that the couple eventually decides to push the button; If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. Alas, there’s still not much of a movie. After the pushing of the button and the dispensing of the cash, the movie spins off into multiple subplots that never add up to much of anything.
At a party, a great deal of time is spent on an obnoxious waiter who continually harasses the couple. He then randomly gets a nosebleed. The couple’s babysitter (Community’s Gillian Jacobs) turns out to be living under an assumed name, and staying at a motel where people stand around like zombies. They closely watch her as she, too, randomly gets a nosebleed.
After three or four more people get random nosebleeds, the couple follows clues to a public library, where they run into the same crowd from the motel, still standing around like zombies. Here, Marsden is confronted with three columns of water and forced to enter one of them. This causes him to materialize in his own bedroom, trapped inside a hovering CGI block of water, which eventually comes crashing down and floods the entire house.
As you can probably guess, by the time this movie reaches its conclusion, it’s traveled so far from the initial concept that it’s completely unrecognizable as Matheson’s short story. Matheson had his name taken off the Twilight Zone script because they changed the ending (the teleplay is credited to “Logan Swanson”); one can only imagine how he felt about Kelly’s entire film.
Given this film, Southland Tales, and the director’s cut of Darko, it’s becoming clear that Donnie Darko was pretty much a fluke. By pure happenstance, Kelly tapped into two things that resonated with a lot of people: feelings of teenage alienation, and nostalgia for ‘80s New Wave bands. Without those two things, there’s not a whole lot to enjoy in a Richard Kelly film.
On the positive side, The Box features good performances, particularly from Langella and Diaz. And in a nice touch, Kelly gave a small part to Basil Hoffman, the actor who originally played Steward in the Twilight Zone episode, and he kept the design of the actual box the same as in the episode. Also, he drops in a random clip from What’s Happening!, and what movie can’t be improved with a little Raj and Dee?
Reportedly, Kelly’s next project is the true-crime drama Amicus, which will see him teaming up with another infamous lunatic, Nicolas Cage. It’s the story of a record company exec who hires a hit man to murder his family, and years later, a publisher is sued for selling a book that the hit man allegedly used as a guide. Interestingly, it seems this exact story was already the basis for a TV movie starring Timothy Hutton.
And I know what you’re thinking: Surely, with this being based on a true story, Richard Kelly will be severely limited in his ability to go off the rails and complicate the plot with his trademark nonsense, right? Well, don’t be surprised if the hit man turns out to be a cyborg from the future, his lawyer is a clone from another dimension, and the book in question is actually a guide to bringing people back from the dead. You have been warned.