Enigmatic indie director Richard Kelly is nothing if not ambitious. His debut feature the cult favorite Donnie Darko tackled both suburban ennui and quantum physics. His follow-up Southland Tales combined elaborate dance numbers and juvenile comedy with apocalyptic Bible quotes and Patriot Act criticism. Kelly’s latest effort the sci-fi thriller The Box turns a forgotten Twilight Zone story into a sprawling existential discourse on humanity’s predilection for greed and solipsism.
The Box begins with a straightforward premise and uses it to launch headlong into bizzaro-land. In 1976 a mysterious box arrives at the doorstep of a suburban Virginia couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) followed by a well-dressed horribly disfigured man (Frank Langella looking even creepier than Nixon) who bears a strange yet enticing proposition: If one of them pushes the bright red button atop the box they will receive a cash payment of $1 million and a person they do not know will die. There are a few binding stipulations naturally — a non-disclosure agreement etc. — but none more onerous than those found in the standard cell-phone contract.
Of course they decide to push the button (blame the wife); there wouldn’t be a movie if they didn’t. But the momentous decision doesn’t occur until almost 40 minutes into The Box during which Diaz’s Norma and Marsden’s Arthur are revealed to be among the most daft protagonists in the history of sci-fi. It’s like watching the Tommy Lee/Pamela Anderson sex tape except instead of sex the two vapid stars engage in an extended ethics debate.
Furthering the notion is what appears to be an intense game of bad-acting one-upsmanship on the part of the two lead actors (hint: Diaz wins!).
Their creepy benefactor keeps up his end of the bargain and hands over the cash but Arthur and Norma don’t even get a chance to enjoy their newfound riches before unpleasant things begin happening all around them not the least of which is an epidemic of bloody noses among the townsfolk. The more they try to determine the nature of their predicament the worse it becomes until they find themselves at the center of a vast bats**t-crazy M. Night Shyamalan-esque conspiracy involving space travel telepathy mind control and a really really irksome Martian.
It’s not all bad mind you but every time The Box seems on the verge of developing into something really cool either director Kelly takes another bizarre left turn or Diaz delivers another jaw-droppingly bad line. Perhaps most infuriatingly at no point during their travails do either Arthur and Norma ever consider dipping into their stash of cash. You know a million bucks can buy a helluva lot of ammunition — especially in 1976 dollars.
Joking aside Richard Kelly does deserve credit for being one of the most thought-provoking directors out there. But why does the prevailing thought always have to be “What the f**k?!?”