Super Carnitas reviews The Box (2009)
Writer – Richard Kelly
Director – Richard Kelly
The Box is based on a short story called “Button, Button” written by Richard Matheson. It was first published in Playboy magazine in 1970. I’ve never read it. The short story was the inspiration for an episode of the Twilight Zone…the episode was also titled “Button, Button.” I’ve never seen it. Now….if someone had asked me a few weeks ago if I had seen that episode of the Twilight Zone where the couple was presented with a box with a button on it, and they were told pressing the button would make them wealthy…but a random person would die because of it…I would have probably said..uh..yeah..sure. Even though I hadn’t. And it’s not because I’m a liar…but because I’ve seen a shit ton of Twilight Zones. In various states of inebriation. So the odds are…yeah..I’ve seen it. It sounds familiar enough in a Monkey’s Paw-ish kind of way….doesn’t it? But having learned it was an epsiode of the 80’s…color…version of The Twilight Zone…I can say with a great deal of confidence that I’ve never seen it. Now I mention this for two reasons. One – Although I’m aware of the concept, I have no preconceived notion of how it’s going to play out, and Two – maybe there’s a reason the first two incarnations of this story were done in the “short” versions of their respective mediums.
The Box starts out with typed words telling us about an accident involving a scientist. He’s a burn victim and the status of his recovery is mentioned. Some creation of his is also mentioned. It’s vague and ambiguous..but it gives us something to chew on.
The movie starts with a package being left on the doorstep of a young couple. Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis. The film is set in 1976 so the couple have no qualms about opening this strange, unmarked box right there on their kitchen table. Their young son Walter even joins in, curious despite his pre-teen aloof-coolness.
Inside the package is a box. A wooden box with a button (under a glass dome) on top of it. There is a key hole on the front of the box…but no key to be found. Instead they find a note saying to expect a visit from a Mr. Steward at 5 p.m. that evening. The family kinda shrugs it off and goes about their day. And here’s where they start to lose me.
Marsden never really looks like he knows what he wants to do with the Arthur Lewis role. He really looks lost and disconnected throughout the entire film. And maybe it’s not his fault. He’s supposed to be a NASA engineer and an aspiring astronaut…but he’s not given dialogue to support his position. We know he had a role in designing a 360 degree, panoramic camera….and umm…we know he spends his work days designing a prosthetic foot for his hot, gimpy wife. We learn his dreams of being an astronaut are shot down because he failed the psych evaluation. And we learn that this kinda bums him out.
Cameron Diaz is simply unequipped as an actress to give life to Norma Lewis. We see her at work as a (philosophy?) teacher in and expensive…exclusive…private school. She’s lecturing her class on the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. Really? (Camus can do, but Sartre is smartre.) Sorry…I just don’t buy it coming from Cameron Diaz. (Scooby Doo can doo doo but Jimmy Carter is smarter). As she is attempting to explain Sartre’s proclamation that “hell is other people” she is derailed by a student who asks about her “limp”. With minimal effort the student gets her to expose her deformed foot to the entire class. “Hell is other people…seeing you as you really are.” Lame.
At 5 p.m. Arlington Steward arrives at the Lewis household and explains the details of the box to Norma. It’s simple really. If she pushes the button..someone she doesn’t know..dies…and she receives one million dollars. Tax free. She has twenty-four hours to make her decision…and she is only allowed to discuss it with her husband. Nobody else. Half of Mr. Stewards face is missing…which is unsettling in it’s own right. He leaves her the key and promises to return in 24 hours.
So we have the Nasa engineer and the deep-thinking philosopher discussing this moral dilemma that faces them. Get ready for some compelling dialogue regarding the consequences of their decision. “So someone we don’t know dies. What if it’s someone’s baby?” “What if it’s a mass murderer on death row?” Ugh. Shove me into the shallow water before I get too deep.
Marsden and Diaz have zero chemistry. I don’t buy the fact that they’re smart, professional people. I don’t buy the fact that they are in love. Not even a little bit. They seem like strangers sharing a house…oh and there’s a kid. Still not buying it. So already..the heart and soul of the movie is lost on me. And that’s assuming this movie had any heart or soul to begin with.
After the deep, existential, discussion on perceived morals and ethics…Norma presses the button. Done and done. A million bucks and someone dies. Mr. Steward drops off the money and collects the box…assuring the couple that the next test subject will be someone they “don’t know”. Oooh ominous and creepy.
From here the film can best be described as a sudo-philosophical, morally ambiguous, sci-fi, clusterfuck. It manages to be both heavy-handed in it’s exposition and confusing in what it chooses to leave unexplained. Oh..you want examples. Okay.
We’re led to believe that Mr. Steward is in fact a Martian. A Martian who has taken over his human form and is now testing mankind for some reason. The simple fact his name is Steward (one who does another’s bidding)…tells us all we need to know. He even explains at some point that humankind will always suffer as long as the individual chooses self gratification over the good of the species. Yawn. Oh I wish I was a better person. Fuck you Martian. Get off of your high horse and stop bitching. We get it. We suck. Shit must be way better on Mars. Dick.
And what’s the deal with the 360 degree camera? The picture in the basement…hey that’s Steward…and….so? What did I miss?
I can’t even explain to you what happens leading up to the end of the film. Most of it doesn’t even make any sense. Steward seems to be able to mentally control a lot of the townfolk. Start counting the nosebleeds. But the shots of the townfolk…almost zombified…turning and staring blankly at the camera. Ugh. It’s been done to death since Invasion of the Body Snatchers…and it does nothing for me anymore. There are these watery pillars and a motel pool that acts as a portal to…ahh i just don’t give a fuck. I don’t care.
That might be my biggest problem with this film. I just don’t care. The film or it’s characters are never interesting enough to suck me in. It never grabs me. An hour into it and I’m already clock watching. It has me hoping someone, somewhere, is pushing a button on a box that will put me out of my misery. God bless em.
The one interesting thing I took from this film….is that 3 people in the movie end up pushing the button. Each of them are female. I can see this being interpreted two ways. One – It’s misogynistic. Insinuating that women are easily lured by material things without considering the consequences of their actions. Our morality is defined by our ability to choose in real situations. In the hypothetical…we’re all saints. When confronted with “real” situations, our choices define us. Kelly could be saying that women lack the moral fortitude to make these choices. Or Two – Women are ultimately the givers (and takers) of life. The closest living thing to God. Only a women can give birth, so only a woman..right or wrong…should be allowed to press the button. Kelly could be putting women on a pedestal here. Or it could all be one happy coincidence.
Whatever it is…it’s pretty lame. There are consequences for pressing the button. Dire consequences. And I’m talking about the “play” button on your remote.
This film suffers from a message that is so heavy-handed that it stops being interesting, and is so confusing that you just stop trying to figure it out. There are some great visuals…but not enough to hold your interest. Comparisons to Kubrick’s work are incredibly generous…but ultimately fall short in every important regard. The concept is great and should inspire spirited debate but I feel it was best presented in it’s intended “short” form. Stretching the idea out into a feature length film rendered it a flimsy, gossamer, version of what it was intended to be.
I think Kelly is best served sticking to the dark humor slash sci-fi films…like Donnie Darko. This film was humorless and just plodded along. I wanted to like it. I really did. But i didn’t.