The biggest secret in Richard Kelly's new film The Box is just how awful it is. Badly paced, plotted, directed and acted, the film really defies understanding how and why anyone other than Kelly not only would want to see it, but would make it in the first place. In fact, the only good thing that might come from its release is the final nail in the Donnie Darko and Southland Tales director's coffin, because otherwise The Box is by far one of the year's worst films.
It stars James Marsden (Enchanted) and Cameron Diaz (Charlie's Angels) as Arthur and Norma Lewis, a happily married couple presented with a unique offer: press the button in a small wooden box and receive one million dollars, but only after a person whom they don't know is murdered. Frustrated by her debt and Arthur's disappointing developments at work, Norma presses the button, but their financial relief immediately gives way to dread when they realize that the button's owner, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), intends to offer it to someone else—specifically whom they do not know.
Before long, Arthur and Norma find themselves ensconced in a mysterious plot and a government conspiracy that will not only force them to answer for the choice, but possibly repay that debt with their very lives.
Set in Virginia in 1976, the movie attempts to integrate an intriguing but poorly developed geographic and historical context, resulting in some terrible Southern accents and a boatload of vintage NASA mumbo-jumbo that not only doesn't make sense but has no bearing whatsoever on the plot. But then again, it's unclear what if anything that happens in the film has to do with any deeper examination or exploration of any theme or idea, since Kelly strings scenes together with such incompetence that The Box never gains any narrative or dramatic momentum.
Supposedly there's an extraterrestrial component to the plot—something about otherworldly creatures that use the box as a test for humankind. But rather than bother to consider or deconstruct the self-righteousness of an alien race that makes itself a galactic arbiter of which civilizations live and die, Kelly offers half-formed meditations on the morality of success at the literal expense of other people that anyone could understand, and without having to sit through two hours of abominable, twangy accents.
Worse, Kelly never indulges either the characters' celebration of their newfound financial freedom or the audience's appetite for supernatural spectacle. While it's perhaps understandable that Arthur and Norma might have some initial remorse over pushing the button, shouldn't they at the very least get one scene where they're able to enjoy life? Or, in lieu of that, once the film's monolithic forces take command of their lives, why do we never get to understand or even just see on camera what it is that seems to be exciting or terrifying them so much? The characters speak in hushed tones about places that "are neither here nor there," but all the viewer gets to watch is an empty airplane hangar, a library and a motel pool that swirls around like a flushed toilet when people descend into its water.
Then again, Kelly's melodramatic, clichéd storytelling seems primarily designed to offer trailer-worthy, throwaway dialogue rather than relevant insights and updates on what the hell is happening. A stupid conversation about turning off the Christmas tree lights exists only so that Arthur can casually say "Everybody dies," and then, later, a chat between Arthur and a babysitter occurs so she can offer comments like "You've got blood on your hands," and "Somebody's pressing your buttons!" Not unlike the one fairly terrific sequence in Southland Tales where Justin Timberlake lip-syncs to the Killers, Kelly demonstrates that he's adept at conceiving interesting moments but has zero capacity for connecting them to something larger or more meaningful.
All of which brings us to the biggest problem with The Box: It has absolutely no central idea other than the single-minded moral dilemma whether these two people should push the button. The story by Richard Matheson upon which the film was based runs some six pages or so and essentially ends about 35 minutes into the movie's running time, leaving some 90 more for the Lewis family to face the repercussions of that decision. But what that means to Kelly is that he can then present them with even more "choices," none of which make any sense or mean anything to either the box's "master plan" or even just the story itself.
I think you absolutely can tell a story where characters make a morally dubious choice and yet remain sympathetic or interesting, but at least in a science fiction setting, that requires motivations that are equally interesting, even if they're not yet known to the characters themselves. Kelly's concept is so ineffective that the movie reaches a point where no payoff will satisfy its mysteries, leaving audiences languishing in his knockoff-Kubrick visual fetishism without any hope for redemption, catharsis or even empty entertainment.
Truth be told, the movie's problems are quite frankly too many to fully enumerate, especially since they only obscure the saddest fact, which is that Kelly's concept for this story—which was already (and appropriately) translated into a serviceable Twilight Zone episode—is stunningly unoriginal, even outside the context of its source material. Donnie Darko's occasional, idiosyncratic charms aside (only in the theatrical cut, mind you), Richard Kelly appears to be unable to shape his ramshackle creativity into something that's remotely coherent, much less commercially appealing, and this film is especially distressing because it seems to think it has the form of a crowd pleaser, when it doesn't even have the integrity of an auteur's vision.
Ultimately, it's just a big, incomprehensible, cliché-laden mess. Spare yourself from The Box pushing your buttons as it pushed mine, and with any luck we won't have to choose whether to suffer through another one of Kelly's films ever again.