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 (2009)

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.

The Box (2009)

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.

The Box (2009)

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.

The Box (2009)

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.

The Box (2009)

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?

Caption contributed by Winston

“You got a glimpse of the afterlife? Oooh, I’m tellin’ mama!”

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.

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  • FullofQuestions1

    I saw the trailer for this at some point, and it looks really stupid. Fun though.

    Also, “You took the box! Let’s show her what’s in the box…Nothing! Absolutely nothing! STUPID! YOU’RE SO STUPID!”

  • Eric Young

    I did a review of this on my site, long ago, in the distant forever ago of 2009. After seeing it again, I think that the ideas hold up well, but they’re all just too disjointed and under-cooked for any of them to come together with any semblance of cohesion, so it collapses on itself like a flan of missed opportunities. The sets are eerie, it’s shot well, and Kelly has a way with a mood, but he can’t sustain it, because these oddball occurrences he keeps chucking into the mix become albatrosses he must reason away with even more implausible explanations, or just ignore them like so many Chekhov’s guns scattered to the wind. A waste of interesting ideas that could’ve fit into other, better movies.

    Also, congratulations, Albert, on keeping this site alive for so long! I discovered you about ten years ago (long-time listener, first-time caller, with the exception of an incident in 2009 where I argued with you in the forum about the ridiculous Nuking the Fridge scenario in Indiana Jones and The Blah Blah of the Blah Blah Blah), and I’ve been coming back ever since. While I do miss the extremely long recap form, this is a good way to ensure your longevity, and I appreciate your wit, your scathing observations, and your good taste in both good and bad cinema. Thank you for making a true community for people with less-than-mainstream tastes!

    • danbreunig

      I’ve been coming back here since the near beginning and I’m still a fan–even more so now that I can see and hear everyone–although I still remember the long recaps fondly. And it’s true about this being a real community–I feel so much more free and welcome to associate with the reviewers and other fans intellectually and/or just socially, which I would and could never do as such on something like Twitter or Facebook or the like. So Albert & Co. MUST be doing something right.

      • MichaelANovelli

        And we love you, too!

    • The forum? What forum? We had a forum? Who’s Albert?
      But seriously, thanks for your comment, glad you’re still around!

  • James Elfers

    Kelly isn’t eve a one trick pony Donnie Darko is perhaps the most overrated and empty films of all time. For reasons of his own, Kelly injected his parents into this mess. His dad worked for NASA and his mom was a school teacher with a southern accent and a limp. Those elements have NO effect on the film or anything to do with the plot (such as it is)..On top of this he does nothing to make the characters interesting. Idiosyncrasies do NOT make a character interesting unless there is some reason for their odd behavior.

    Kelly is in love with his own style and his own BS and then blames the critics and the audience when they
    don’t “get” his movies. Unfortunately because of the undeserved reputation of Donnie Darko Kelly will continue to be handed directing projects, For unknown reasons Hollywood often rewards failure. He is going to have to direct a blockbuster that bombs spectacularly before the director reigns are taken from him. His films lose money but not enough to get him kicked out of the director’s chair.

    • Thomas Stockel

      “They don’t get my genius, man!” Yeah, Kelly’s whining doesn’t surprise me.

      And I don’t understand how Hollywood can keep giving projects to directors who clearly don’t have it any more. Is it because they are afraid of investing in new talent and would rather back the devil they know?

    • Cameron Vale

      Yeah, Donnie Darko was such a failure. So overrated and empty, as far as you can tell.

      • James Elfers

        I know that Danny Darko has defenders but really everything that Kelly does in his subsequent movies is that film as well. Donnie Darko CAN NOT be understood within the context of the film itself. It has to be explained by internet forums and companion material. Alfred Hitchcock wrote,”If you can’t tell your story in 90 minutes DON’T tell it. Kelly could NEVER live by that dictum.

        Since you Love Donnie Darko so much can you explain the film in a few sentences using ONLY information gleaned from the screen? Of course you can’t nobody can!

        • Cameron Vale

          Donnie Darko is a teenage boy of questionable mental health who begins to realize that some of the creepy stuff he’s seeing is actually real, that the world actually does revolve around him in some way, and that something bad is happening. So he wants to solve this mystery before it’s too late. Spoiler alert, he finds what he was looking for to a certain extent, but also realizes that he must die, and that everything he achieved will be undone. A lot of things in the movie are confusing, but in a creepy way, which is good for a horror movie. Also, ignore Kelly’s explanation of the movie, it sucks.

          • James Elfers

            Ignore the guy who wrote and directed it? Sure just like I ignore the fact that Michaelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I like to think that my uncle Ted painted it. You gave a decent definition of the plot but NOT one that can be deduced from watching the movie . From the movie itself one gets, Donnie Darko is about a PERHAPS mystically important teenager name Donnie. He is an unreliable narrator so we can accept nothing at face value concerning him. The film does not unfold in linear narrative so we can not accept the films narrative itself as coherent. Therefore we can NOT safely assume that ANYTHING that happens in the movie is reality either for Donnie OR the world he resides in. To conclude otherwise is to accept information from outside the narrative For example Donnie MAY need to die to save the universe. It is ALSO possible that all of the events in the movie are Donnie’s final thoughts such as the ending of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” being the final thoughts of a mentally unstable person they have only a tangential link to reality. Any way you slice it Donnie Darko is a narrative mess, Director Richard Kelly has a habit of creating narrative messes. It is the ONLY consistency of his three films.

          • Cameron Vale

            I don’t see how my description differs from what was put on screen, or how the narrative is unreliable or nonlinear. I purposely avoided being specific about the extent of the supernatural angle and Donnie’s instrumentality in the ending, because the movie itself did the same. I don’t care what the writer/ director says it means, and I don’t understand why you do, since you complained more than once about movies that don’t stand on their own. And each of your alternate interpretations are better than Kelly’s canonical version.

    • James Elfers

      Further why are you attacking me when Winston O’Boogie himself wrote “After two confusing, overindulgent films (cult favorite Donnie Darko, the not-so-cult favorite Southland Tales)” Why not attack him for not “getting” Donnie Darko? Next time try READING the articles BEFORE responding to the comments. Otherwise you look like an idiot.

    • Wow, I was not aware of all that. I knew Kelly grew up in Virginia… it’s the same reason Donnie Darko is set in Virginia in the ’80s. But I didn’t know the husband and wife in this movie are basically his parents with different names. You’re right, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and he seems to be visualizing a scenario where his dad shoots his mom?

      This might be of interest, NASA posted an article about Kelly’s parents while The Box was being filmed there http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/rn_producersparents.html

  • Black Doug

    I need to post the Funny or Die spoof of “The Box”, one of my favorite parodies ever. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHvDS-MlIBU

    • Yeah, that was pretty funny. Though, maybe it’s just cathartic for me, because after reading the original short story, then watching the Twilight Zone episode, then seeing The Box again, my dream in life was for someone to just cut through all the crap and push the damn button already. It reminds me a lot of how the ending of Four Rooms does the same thing with the premise of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode.

      • James Elfers

        Even Kelly realized that he had to make it a period piece, With the explosion of “reality television” and instant fame in the internet age people today will do ANYTHING for fame and wealth. Presented with the box today few folks would hesitate to push the button immediately. Only a thoroughly morally grounded person would hesitate, and THOSE sort of folks are considered uncool and backward by the media and by the current generation. What was an interesting and thought provoking puzzle to Richard Matheson and his generation has little relevance in the age of the Kardasians. .

        • Well, here’s something to consider… in the Twilight Zone episode, the amount of money offered to the couple was $200,000. The movie raises this to one million dollars (even though it’s set ten years before the TZ episode aired).

          But you know how much they were offered in the original short story? $50,000. Matheson didn’t even think people would do anything for *wealth*, he thought they’d do it just to be a bit more comfortable. To me that seems a lot more cynical than what you’re describing.

          • James Elfers

            I agree with you to a point but. $50,000 dollars when Matheson wrote the story was more than most people made in two years of work. It was meant not just to make you “comfortable” but to solve most of your problems. My parents bought a house around the time Matheson wrote his story for $10,000 FURNISHED! It sold decades later for over $300,000. If anything the dollar amount could have remained unchanged. Folks today would gladly kill a stranger for $50,000. Look how they will debase themselves on television for far less money just to become “celebrities.” Get knocked up as a teenager, appear on “16 and Pregnant” and you have enough resultant fame that you never have to work hard again for as long as you live. That is the message hammered into today’s culture. All that matter are wealth and fame. Only the super rich would turn their noses up at $50,000 today. It may not put you on easy street but at the very least it will pay off your credit card debts and pay off your car. Lots and lots of people would kill a total stranger for those opportunities!

  • StevePotter

    This movie was worse than “Knowing” (a similarly confusing/awful film) because at least at the end of “Knowing”, you sort of understood what happened.

    Also, Kelly’s script for “Holes” wasn’t that bad, honestly. If they removed the pretentious narration and changed the character/location names so it WASN’T “Holes”, it would have made a pretty decent film. The problem with it was that it was a terrible adaptation of a great novel.

  • MichaelANovelli

    Ah, Richard Kelly. Harmony Korine before we even knew what that was…

    • Cristiona

      I dunno. Harmony’s movies are weird and grotesque, but at least they don’t require ten hours of research to understand.