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The Box

Director Richard Kelly's strange 2009 science fiction film loosely based on a Richard Matheson story.

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Admittedly, it's a little on the absurd side; but it keeps you hooked with its chilling atmosphere.

  • Mar 1, 2012
*** out of ****

A movie as perplexing as "The Box" is a rare find, especially when it's a very mainstream picture. But then again, it isn't easy to imagine that Richard Kelly, whose breakthrough feature was the illusive and fascinating "Donnie Darko", is capable of making a mainstream movie for Hollywood. But if he ever did, this would be it. Now, I know that it isn't easy to enjoy or even appreciate a movie like this on first glance - heck, I didn't even like it upon my initial viewing - but I'm a strong believer that anything Richard Kelly directs is worth looking at least a second look, if not a third. With all three of his movies so far, I've gone back and revisited their labyrinths of beauty and sometimes all-out frustration; and all but once, my desire for a greater understanding of the material has been met and satisfied. In my opinion, that's the magic of a Richard Kelly film; there is almost always intelligence, underneath the surface, even if the surface is rough and unconventional.

It is early morning, and the ring of a doorbell wakes the Lewis family - Norma (Cameron Diaz), Arthur (James Marsden), and son Walter -, revealing a box left on their doorstep by some anonymous person who takes off almost instantly in a black car. Norma takes the box inside, and for the rest of the morning, the family ponders it. However, they have lives to return to (Norma is a High School teacher; Arthur works for NASA), so they put these thoughts on hold, at least, until they return home. This is when the man who delivered the box stops by the house for a nice chat, in which he introduces himself - as Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) - and informs Norma of the purpose that the box intends to serve.

During his visit, Mr. Steward explains that under the glass dome that sits at the top of the box is a little red button. To push the button would mean two things: somebody in the world, unbeknownst to the Lewis family, would die, and also, they would receive a payment of one million dollars. While the guilt of being responsible for the death of another troubles Norma; the family needs financial support, and Arthur doesn't seem to be (currently) capable of providing that and neither does she. So once Mr. Steward leaves and Arthur comes home; they make their final decision on what to do. Ultimately, Norma pushes the button; and promptly, Steward returns to supply them with their promised payment. And it's assumed that this is the end, but in fact, it's just the beginning.

The film successfully toys with our minds for quite some time; there's a cold-blooded murder committed nearby where the Lewis' live; which involved a husband, who was reported to be kindly and perfectly civilized, shooting his wife dead and frightening his young daughter, who the police later found locked in the household bathroom. There's the possibility that this could be the person that the Lewis' killed through their decision to push the button; but by the time the story has advanced more after this scene, it becomes clear that even more possibilities are, well, possible. In the opinions of many, that might be confusing and infuriating; but to me, it's intriguing, and it demonstrates plenty of skill on Kelly's part. "The Box" certainly proves a lot of things, but above all, it proves that Kelly can craft an engaging and intelligent mystery-suspense story, working from a short story by Richard Matheson.

The film is at one moment absurd, and another kind of believable. Setting the story in the 1970's was quite possibly Kelly's best choice; since back then, you could still have door-to-door salesmen (which Mr. Steward KIND OF is), and thus setting it in a more modern time would have come off as just completely unbelievable. Sure, there are still elements of the story - in the form of plot holes - that are difficult to accept or let alone fully comprehend, but this seems like a personal piece for Kelly, and it brings back memories of "Darko". That could of course mean different things for everyone; but to me it means a return to the flawed complexities of Kelly's wicked, brilliant, dark imagination. There are scenes of striking visual beauty here (the cinematography is gorgeous); such as one where Arthur meets Steward's "wife" in a library, where she leads him to a room in which three rectangular water blocks rise up and act as a sort of gateway, each on representing something different. But only one leads to salvation, as the wife says.

There's also a really cool and interesting aspect of the story that Kelly toys around with for a while; that Mr. Steward has employees, even though he claims to have an employer himself; perhaps he's just high up there on his obscure food-chain of...whatever. Anyways, these "employees" are like mindless zombies; and they pop up to spy on the Lewis family whenever they get suspicious of Steward's actions, the box, and his identity. The employees alone create some of the film's creepiest and most tense moments; although Kelly is able to create suspense and atmosphere otherwise, which is good, because no one wants a movie entirely devoted to the employees rather than the employers, even if they aren't even talked about at great length, or with great depth. Oh well, at least the random nosebleeds got some whacky explanation.

So while it may be confusing and in need of a slightly improved Director's Cut somewhere down the road (you know, to fill up the plot holes); "The Box" is still a thoroughly engaging mystery that keeps the intrigue and distant fascination consistent throughout. It isn't perfectly entertaining to my taste, but I couldn't look away; seeing it the second time introduced me to a whole new movie, one that rewards its audience as long as they're willing to suspend their disbelief. It has all the qualities of a Richard Kelly movie: a mish-mash of many different philosophical and existential themes, what seems or looks like time travel, and Holmes Osborne. It's not perfect, and it's not going to impress a lot of people (particularly those who can't get over a few silly lines of stupid dialogue and some illogical concepts); but I still liked it nevertheless, for what it was, and what it aspires to be. It makes it possible for me to forget "Southland Tales" all-together and acknowledge that Kelly has the skills to back up his many ideas; with "The Box", he still does, and there's a sense that he always will.

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March 05, 2012
This actually grew on me. Good cinemtapgraphy and it was creepy at some points. A little heavy-handed at times though.
More The Box (2009 film) reviews
review by . May 20, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Wednesday, November 4 was the premiere of The Box in NYC. I had seen many trailers for the film and had made up my mind that this would be one that I would spend the money to see in theaters. The story looked interesting and the trailer planted a question so deep into my mind that I felt I needed to find out the answer. However, after seeing the film I now have even more questions than answers and it feels exhilarating.      I left work last night around 5:30pm to be sure that …
review by . August 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
   I remember watching the Twilight Zone as a kid in the 80s. I was pretty young and don’t remember that much about it, but I do remember the button episode. I think that is the one episode that every kid remembers. It was so creepy, and the ominous ending made you sure that you would never fall for that trick, and you would never press the button.      When The Box came up on Cinemax, I recognized the story immediately. Where the Twilight Zone version ends in …
review by . February 28, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
What makes the premise of this intriguing film so satisfying is its simplicity. A middle class couple facing financial difficulties is presented with a choice: push a button and they will be given a million dollars in cash ... and, someone they don't know will die. The problem is that the filmmakers develop an overly elaborate and inexplicably bizarre back story packed with visually intriguing ideas that never really go anywhere in order to account for why they were given the choice in the first …
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Ryan J. Marshall ()
Ranked #11
It's very likely that the only kind of reviews I'll ever post here are movie reviews. I'm very passionate about film; and at this point, it pretty much controls my life. Film gives us a purpose; … more
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Director Richard Kelly has crafted yet another evocative, spectacular, maddening film guaranteed to provoke passionate love-it or hate-it responses. Though far more straightforward than his previous cult favorites,Donnie DarkoorSouthland Tales,The Boxis crammed just as full of stunning visuals and ambiguous metaphysics. Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz ofCharlie's Angelsand James Marsden ofX-Men) find a plainly wrapped package on their doorstep one day. Inside is a strange box with a large, red button--and if they press that button, explains a courtly but alarming-looking gentleman (Frank Langella,Frost/Nixon), they will receive a million dollars… and someone they don't know will die. This is but the starting point for an increasingly creepy tale, featuring eye-popping wallpaper, spontaneous nosebleeds, allusions to Jean-Paul Sartre, overly attentive library patrons, boxes of water, warehouses full of light, and a bell-ringing Santa Claus standing in the middle of a road. Some of it makes sense, some of it doesn't, but the person who's going to love this movie won't care.The Box's true power lies in the slow accumulation of dizzying hypnotic images and a tangible sense of unease and anticipation. Kelly aspires to capture the beauty and terror of existence on film; even if he doesn't succeed--and every viewer will have to decide that for himself or herself--his sheer ambition is remarkable.--Bret Fetzer
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Director: Richard Kelly
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Release Date: November 6, 2009
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Screen Writer: Richard Kelly
DVD Release Date: February 23, 2010
Runtime: 115 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
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