Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button” is a slight but effective piece that takes a clever, off-the-wall premise—a couple is given a device which they can activate in order to get a bundle of cash, though somebody will die as a result—and spins it into an effective tale with a nifty (and humanistic) last-minute twist. It was previously adapted only once, as a part of “The Twilight Zone” (the eighties revival, not Rod Serling’s original). Matheson reportedly disliked it because the makers made a radical change to the ending (he used his pseudonym, Logan Swanson, in the credits), though it must be said that that alteration wasn’t inconsistent with the nasty turns that “Zone” so often favored.
One wonders what he’ll make of the movie that’s the third feature from Richard Kelly, who started out strong with the remarkable “Donnie Darko” but plummeted to the depths with the ambitious but execrable “Southland Tales.” “The Box” merely uses Matheson’s story—which it virtually retells in the first thirty minutes, with the revised ending he so hated—as the springboard for a convoluted script that adds layers of socio-economic commentary, sci-fi contrivance and “Donnie Darko”-esque imagery to the mix. Ultimately the combination does not prove a happy one, but thanks to Kelly’s ability in fashioning scenes of genuine strangeness, as well as a creepy score by Win Butler, Regine Chassagne and Owen Pallett, it has its moments.
Kelly sets the picture during the seventies in the Virginia suburbs where he grew up. Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), a scientist working on the Mars mission at a government center, and his wife Norma (Cameron Diaz) are happily preparing for a long life together, but their prospects are dimmed when he fails to get an expected commission as an astronaut and she’s informed that her position as an English teacher won’t keep covering the tuition of their son Walter (Samuel Oz Stone) at the ritzy private school where she teaches.
No sooner do their problems arise than a solution presents itself in the person of the mysterious, spiffy, but facially deformed Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who arrives with his box and the offer of a million dollars to press the killing button. Norma, who also suffers from a physical imperfection (a clubfoot), takes the bait, and somebody does in fact die, in a killing investigated by Norma’s detective father (Holmes Osborne).
It’s at that point that Kelly’s imagination takes off. Wracked with guilt, Lewis tries to discover what’s behind Steward and his deadly device, and the search leads him and Norma to people who suffer from horrible nosebleeds, hordes of folk apparently turned into virtual zombies, kidnapped children, and, most importantly, the testing of homo sapiens by an advanced alien race with almost unlimited power—including, it seems, the ability to control space, time, and even natural phenomena like lightning.
Kelly, working closely with production designer Alexander Hammond, art director Priscilla Elliot, set decorator Tracey A. Doyle and costume designer April Ferry, creates a strong seventies ambience (the use of TV shows from the period is an especially effective touch), and Steven Poster’s widescreen cinematography gives the visuals an unsettling metallic sheen. He also shows a keen sense of how to imbue apparently ordinary events with a sense of unease and strangeness, as well as an ability to keep the complicated plot running smoothly despite its inherent silliness, a skill he certainly failed to demonstrate in “Southland Tales.” He also secures slightly stylized, vaguely affected performances from his leads—which fits the material.
In the end, though, while “The Box” is visually arresting and peculiar enough to hold your interest, in the end it proves to be pretty empty inside. Despite some glancing references to existentialism toward the close and an ending that tries to engage the emotions, it’s mostly an exercise in genre effects, rather like an audition reel designed to prove that, contrary to the evidence of “Southland,” Kelly can put together a popcorn thriller. In that respect it feels driven by the same motive that led Orson Welles to direct “The Stranger.”
But like that picture demonstrated about Welles, Kelly’s shows that he can’t really pull off a conventional Hollywood picture. “The Box” is imbued with the same sort of idiosyncratic vision that marked “Donnie Darko,” which certainly remains his best, most fully realized work (the original version, not the director’s cut that spells everything out too much and undercuts the first version’s wonderful ambiguity). But it lacks that film’s depth, while retaining much of the oddness that most viewers find off-putting.
Perhaps Kelly is akin to Welles in another way: it’s possible that his first film was his masterpiece, and he’s destined to disappoint to some degree with all of his later efforts. “The Box” isn’t a disaster, as “Southland Tales” undoubtedly was. But despite its tantalizingly weird moments, it represents an offer you should probably refuse.