Based on the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson, or rather the famous Twilight Zone episode adapted from it, Richard Kelly’s The Box presents an intriguing dilemma. What would you do if someone offered you a box with a button that, if pressed, could stop the impenetrable snore-fest playing before you, freeing two hours of your life but preventing you from finding how the story concludes? Would you push it or plow through the ominous nonsense, hoping for a psychedelic payoff? I’ve made my choice, so allow me to make yours easier: nothing happens in the end.
Okay, here’s the real premise: Cameron Diaz and James Marsden (yes, I know he looks half her age) play Norma and Arthur Lewis, a suburban couple to whom is bestowed a wooden box with a big red button on it. “If you push the button, two things will happen,” explains the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), “First, someone somewhere in the world whom you don’t know will die. Second, you will receive a payment of one million dollars.” It takes forever to get to this point, and then the movie somehow slows down, furthering our disappointment a little at a time until we end up exactly where we started but with the extra baggage of convolution.
What irks me is that The Box has, at its core, an intriguing concept. Granted, Matheson’s tale lasts only a few pages, and the Twilight Zone segment clocks out after twenty-two minutes, but it seems to me one could easily extend the story by exploring its characters’ psychology and the real consequences of such a dilemma. Instead, Kelly fills up the runtime with portentous melodrama and inconsistent plot twists, forcing the actors, Diaz in particular, to transition between increasingly erratic emotions. I mean, why in hell would a woman speak of love to the man about to cause her death?
I know: because The Box pertains to “deep stuff” like human behavior, making choices, and, uh, the late seventies. Why exactly is the film set in 1976? Don’t get me wrong. The details of the era are beautifully recreated, with clever touches regarding man’s burgeoning relationship with technology and the cosmos. However, the source material takes place at least half a decade before, so the period strikes me as a bit of a random quirk, especially seeing as Kelly pulled more or less the same stunt with Donnie Darko (2001).
I suspect I might have been more patient with the movie if it didn’t come off so self-indulgent. We get endless soliloquies about fate and morality but no attempt to link the two notions, a recurrent theme of physical deformation but no clue as to what the point might be, and scene after scene of contrived dilemmas but no explanation as to their possible consequences. What does Arthur choosing one arbitrary door over the other prove in the grand scheme of things? How can his decision matter when the outcome has already been foretold? These questions don’t challenge our understanding of the world so much as our suspension of disbelief and our faith in The Box paying it all off with a genuine statement.
Indeed, Kelly opts instead for yet another ethical quandary, the specifics of which I will not spoil, except to say that I find the writer-director’s version of a moral choice offensive to both orphans and the disabled. Also, the whole thing hinges on Norma and Arthur trusting Arlington’s word implicitly when they’ve got no reason to do so. That is, besides the bit at the end, when it’s revealed that our heroes’ ordeal was predestined, making free will and thus their decision completely moot. My mind hurts.
Worse, it’s bored, constantly coming up with new questions to keep itself entertained. Why must Arthur go through a watery rebirth if the outcome remains the same as promised at the beginning of The Box? What does noticing that the letter V looks like a two have to do with the salvation of the human race? How does the box evaluate a person’s intentions when there are so many reasons to push the button? If the goal is to collect data to decide humanity’s fate, why dish out ironic punishments? Does Richard Kelly really expect us to mistake this crap for postmodern depth?