Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko,” “Southland Tales”) is a writer/director known for making very bizarre, perplexing thrillers that audiences either love or hate. His latest effort, “The Box,” continues this style. This adaptation of an old Twilight Zone episode, full of outlandish themes, is one of his most puzzling films to date.
“The Box” begins regularly enough, in Arlington, Virginia, with NASA scientist Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) and his wife Norma (Cameron Diaz), awakened in their 1976 suburban home by the chilling ring of the doorbell. When they open the door, they find a black car slipping into the morning fog and a small package on their doorstep. Inside is a wooden box, with no wiring, radio, or batteries, with only a glossy red button covered and locked by a glass dome.
Later, the family is visited by the mysterious yet mannerly gentleman, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who has come to offer the family a baffling business deal. Steward, who has a extravagant bloody gash slicing across with face, explains to Arthur and Norma that if they push the button on the box, two things will happen. First, they will receive $1 million. Second, someone in the world, who they don’t know, will die. The deal is rather sketchy, but in desperate need of money, they slam the button.
Their lives then take an insane twist for the worst, and delusional events put the family through hell on Earth, and it is far too late to take back their mistake.
Bizarre people begin to stalk the couple like zombies with unexplainable nosebleeds. As the couple investigates Steward, Arthur is shown a glimpse of the afterlife through a water portal, and Nora learns of Steward’s previous experience with a lightning strike. The details are unclear in this part, but I was still excited to see where it would go.
One of the most thrilling scenes is when Arthur is in the car with a new friend, when suddenly they see a man dressed as Santa standing motionless in the snowy road. They stop and wait for him to move, but he stays frozen, ringing his bell. While Arthur ponders if he should get out of the car a truck slips by Santa and smashes into them, causing screams throughout the audience.
Kelly creates a masterful puzzle with hints, riddles, and misleading tidbits for the audience to try and sort through days after seeing the movie. He mixes the ideas of religion, outer space and ethics all into this murky thriller, which makes it at times difficult to comprehend why things are happening throughout the film.
With the uncanny plot, the acting does a decent job of adding to the exhilaration of the story. Diaz, even with all of her crying and screaming, is very mature throughout the film. It was interesting to see her in a serious role of a mother, rather than her more common roles as the ditsy blond or the pretty girl. She excelled in her scenes with the couple’s son, where she could both playfully tease him and cry with him when times were tough.
Marsden did surprisingly well in a leading role, finally starting to break out of his usual supporting parts. He was no where near as serious as Diaz, and even added a tiny bit of humor into his dialogue, but through the final scenes he played his part with plenty of passion. The problem with both Diaz and Marsden is that their suffering throughout the film isn’t very authentic, which is a big part of a thriller.
But the best actor in this movie is easily the frightening Frank Langella. He made Steward disturbing, yet somewhat likable. His dialogue was delivered in a calm tone, and with clever humor twisted in. With an elegant coat, hat and gaping lower jaw, Langella created one of the most distinguished antagonists that I have ever seen.
Even with all of its outlandish and sometimes incomprehensible subplots and an abrupt ending, I knew what Kelly was striving for and he did a nice job executing it. Anyone who sees his film and expects an everyday thriller will probably be disappointed with this movie because of the craziness and confusion. Personally, I was engaged and entertained from the beginning, but at times I was also overwhelmed. With all of the mind-bending madness, “The Box” might draw a large cult of fans much like “Donnie Darko” did, even with all of the negative criticism from casual viewers.
2 1/2 Stars