Wow. I’m sorry to say that I was very disappointed with The Box. Why? Because there was so much potential. So many movies have the psychological, suspenseful underpinnings that would make for an excellent film, but something goes awry in the execution. The Box intrigued me not only with its premise, which I’ll explain in a minute, but also with its offer to see Cameron Diaz in a heftier role, a marked departure from the light and airy romantic-comedy fare she usually puts out. Not since Vanilla Sky can I recall Diaz trying her hand at something that doesn’t require her to punctuate her lines with a goofy giggle.
The Box, directed by Richard Kelly, is based on the short story “Button, Button” by Isaac Asimov. I nearly choked when I found out Kelly also directed Donnie Darko, one of the most intriguing, darkly unique movies of the past twenty years. He brought the same eerie sense of foreboding to The Box that he employed in Donnie Darko, but that’s where the similarities end. Darko, an instant classic, should not be mentioned in the same sentence with The Box. The movie, set in 1976, is premised on the notion that every decision has consequences. Diaz and James Marsden (X-Men) star as Arthur and Norma Lewis, a relatively young couple with a son of about 10. The Lewis’ lead an ordinary life, but have encountered a few professional and financial setbacks recently. Norma, a schoolteacher, learns that her employer will no longer offer an employee discount for tuition. Meanwhile Arthur, a NASA employee, learns that he is unfit to be an astronaut after failing the psychological exam. Norma also suffers from a foot deformity that causes a pronounced limp. These early revelations, coupled with the very stark cinematography, created an eerie, uneasy feeling that left me anxious. And that’s before Creepy Dude even shows up. Let me backtrack for a second. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, the mysterious box is left on the Lewis’ doorstep before we are made aware of its purpose or the couple’s financial hardships. A note explains that Mr. Arlington Steward will return the following day at 5:00 to explain the box’s purpose. Steward is played by Frank Langella, a man who has scared me ever since an old movie called Brainscan. He also dated Whoopi Goldberg, that’s pretty scary too. Anyway, Steward’s face has been horribly disfigured due to a freak accident where he was struck by lightning and burned. So he shows up on Norma’s doorstep and she tries to hide her shock at his appearance. After inviting him in, he explains that the box contains another wooden box with a button inside and a key. If the button is pressed, Steward will give Norma and her husband one million dollars in cash, which he demonstrates by opening a briefcase with the money inside. He extracts one crisp hundred dollar bill and gives it to her as a token of his appreciation for her courtesy. In the movies, and in life, you never get something for nothing. When the button is pressed, someone in the world that the Lewis’ don’t know will die. They don’t know who or how. They have 24 hours to decide. If they don’t press the button, Steward will collect the box in 24 hours and present the offer to someone else. If they do press the button he will return with the money. It’s never explained or revealed how he will know if they actually press the button.
When Arthur comes home Norma explains the whole story, and he is predictably in disbelief. Even if Steward and the box are the real deal, Arthur is hesitant about pressing the button. He wonders “what if it’s someone’s baby?” Norma counters with “what if it’s a murderer on death row?” They are both on the fence, saying that it’s a mutual decision. They stare at the box miserably, in a state of confusion – but of course someone is going to press the button or we wouldn’t have a movie. Norma impulsively reaches out and presses the button. Steward shows up with the money later as promised, but now the Lewis’ are freaking out. Arthur tries to give the money back, but of course it’s too late. His wife’s desperation has set them on a fateful course that cannot be altered.
What follows next is a truly bizarre series of events that at times takes the movie from suspense, to horror, to sci-fi, and even fantasy. It was a hodgepodge of genres and a collection of disjointed scenes. Richard Kelly plays up the NASA angle, and it seems that Steward might be an agent of the state or a supernatural being. Is he conducting an experiment, is he the devil, is he an alien? At various times all of these possibilities seem viable. The movie was very poor in some places, and just okay in others. Again, the premise was awesome, but the storyline faltered and the acting was spotty. I wanted to like Cameron Diaz, and I almost did. Her accent was contrived and she seemed to be trying too hard at times, though she did have a few good scenes. To her credit, Norma never once seemed like a heartless, greedy character – despite willingly allowing the demise of another human being for her own financial gain. Maybe it was the deformity that humanized her, but she just seemed desperate and sympathetic. Arthur was also a sympathetic character, a man who was just trying to protect his family. I won’t reveal what the real ramifications of pressing the button were, but they were tragic. This was a very difficult movie to review because it was truly weird. It also seemed like certain pages of the script were just plain missing. Where were the transition scenes, why wasn’t the movie more seamless? I’ll give you an example that won’t spoil anything. At one point Norma and their son Walter are abducted. Arthur is ostensibly going to rescue them. However, we never see the rescue! One minute an unconscious Norma is being held over a swimming pool, the next minute she’s reunited with Arthur. They are back in their kitchen. Must have been quite a rescue because they’re soaked, dirty, and disheveled, but we never see the rescue! Are you kidding me?? The guy who made Donnie Darko is responsible for this movie?? I’m stunned. In addition to slapdash editing, certain phenomena were introduced and then abandoned. There’s nothing left to say. The Box was a very disappointing movie that had all the potential in the world but fell woefully short of expectations.
This article first appeared at www.poptimal.com and was reprinted with permission.