Richard Kelly's "The Box" is a fantastic short film padded out unnecessarily to feature length and weighed down by some of the most preposterous science-fiction plotting this side of "The Matrix" sequels.
It's a shame, because the film, based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button" presents a morality tale so intriguing and simple that it's easy to see why Kelly wanted to take a stab at adapting it (the story was also the basis for a "Twilight Zone" episode): A young couple is visited by a strange man who presents them with a box and an offer - if they press the button inside the box within the next 24 hours, they will receive $1 million. The catch - when they press the button, someone they don't know will die. The question is, can they live with the death of a stranger if it allows them to live comfortably?
Why Kelly, who directed the overrated and similarly ridiculous "Donnie Darko," decided to add subplots involving NASA, Mars, watery wormholes and the afterlife to the equation is beyond me, although those who have seen "Darko" or his largely unseen follow-up "Southland Tales" know the director loves to confuse audiences and mistake impenetrability with profundity.
The film's strong first act should have been the film itself - and it makes me bemoan the absence of anthology filmmaking. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden portray the couple who receives the titular box; living in the 1970s, he has dashed hopes of being an astronaut and she's a teacher with a deformity that she tries to hide from others. When the charming, yet hideously scarred Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) shows up at their door with the box, the film hits its highest notes. Who hasn't wondered what they would be capable of in return for comfort and assurance?But only 30 minutes into the film, Diaz presses the button, Langella presents the cash and reprograms the box (with the wonderfully creepy promise that it will be 'presented to someone you don't know'), and the film loses its slow-burn, character-based moral drama for a sci-fi, paranoia-laced thriller so twisty and confounding that even if everything is explained, it still feels inexplicable.
Not that it's a boring ride. Kelly has an eye for style, and he creates a wonderfully eerie and atmospheric thriller that, in tone, is reminiscent of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or any number of conspiracy flicks. A slow speed chase through a library builds tension wonderfully and a creepy student who shows up in a few too many places manages to be fittingly unsettling. The score brilliantly taps into the spine-tingling nature of Hitchcock's films, and Kelly goes to great pains to faithfully recreate the NASA facilities and equipment of the time.
Likewise, Marsden and Langella are fantastic in their roles. Marsden brings a subtlety to his protagonist, portraying a good man who finds himself punished for his selfish deeds. Langella, with a hideously burned face, still manages to project charm and empathy, even when it's wrapped up in a quietly threatening demeanor. Diaz, however, is miscast and seems to focus more on getting a Virginian accent right than bringing any emotion or personality to her character.
At its heart, "The Box" is a morality tale centered on two normal characters faced with an extraordinary choice. By trying to explain the box and the button, Kelly robs the parable of its power and focus. The story is no longer about ordinary people facing their own inner evil, but is now about the fate of the world and powers higher than us. When the film refocuses on the characters for a strong third act, the hook of the premise is enough to make us care about the final moral decision awaiting the couple - but we've taken so many rabbit trails to get to that point that we don't really know why they're in this position or what the denouement means.
Kelly keeps "The Box's" plot moving, but fails to bring his characters along for the ride.
Still, there's enough to make the film worthy of a look, if only for the handsome cinematography, the strong performances by Langella and Marsden, or the strong moral questions posed in the first and third act. Kelly still has enough style to make a watchable film; he just overloads them with absurd twists and turns that negate audience investment. Maybe he should stop trying to think outside the box.