Watch the trailer for The Box and you’ll swear it’s gonna play like a by-the-numbers thriller dressed up with a careful-what-you-wish-for premise reminiscent of W.W. Jacobs’ classic short story The Monkey’s Paw. But brace yourself for something entirely different: an experience simultaneously compelling, befuddling, audacious and frustratingly disjointed.
The director is Richard Kelly, whose brilliantly conceived debut Donnie Darko slowly set the cult film scene on fire following its release in 2001. The Box revolves around the plight of parents Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) who live a peaceful-but-that’s-about-to-change lower-middle class suburban existence with their young son. After a bout of bad news – Norma needs an operation on her foot, Arthur gets passed up for promotion and their son’s school fees are set to increase dramatically – the family land ass first in financially troubling waters.
A mysterious package arrives at their front door and yes, it’s a box. Inside this box is a device that looks, one must assume unintentionally, very much like the popular toy ‘the bullshit buzzer.’ Essentially it’s a red button waiting, beckoning, just longing, to be pressed. A mysterious stranger arrives to explain what it is; his name is Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) and he’s dapperly dressed but creepy looking, primarily because he has – but try not to hold it against him, cuz deep down he’s probably a great guy – only half a face (it was burnt off in a fire). Arlington explains that if the bullshit buz – um, button is pressed, two things will happen: “first, someone somewhere in the world who you don’t know will die. Second, you will receive a payment of one million dollars.” And so the madness begins.
As Kelly noted when I interviewed him last month, it would “be ridiculous if we made the movie and nobody pressed the button” so it’s no secret that the characters will damn themselves and spend the rest of the story scrambling about, trying to undo their decision. To say much more about the plot is to detract from the film’s one consummate pleasure: trying to predict where the storyline is going, because, well, you can’t. Say what you will about Richard Kelly’s style – and plenty of people have – but any suggestion that his films are conventional, predictable or generic is sheer folly. A cookie cutter filmmaker he most certainly is not.
All three of Kelly’s features have been interesting feats, even if two of them are riddled with imperfections. Southland Tales, Kelly’s sprawling second feature based in an alternate nuclear-bombed America, was even more experimental and even more out-there than Donnie D, so much so that actually watching it in a single sitting is like sitting through Gone With the Wind in slow-mo – that is to say, easier said than done. But, you gotta hand it to him, it’s bold. Really bold.
Cinematic conservatives (if political terminology can be applied to the filmic world) will tell you that storytelling conventions exist for very good reasons – that they are the tested and tried templates that can effectively sequence and package the rhythms required for interesting fiction. Great films often defy conventions but filmmakers who go against the grain do so at their own peril.
But rarely do they go against the grain so spectacularly, and with such crazey-eyed gumption, as Kelly does in The Box. The film is littered with interesting ideas, visual and thematic, and if keeping track of them were turned into a drinking game the audience would be wasted by about the half way point. Arlington Steward’s missing chunk of face is an example of The Box’s inventions at their most showy and superficial, but there are better ones, like the bullshit buzzer’s peculiar entwinement with fate, the mysterious nose bleeds that seem to move from person to person and the ‘water coffins’ (as Kelly calls them) that pop up and, well, you’ll just have to find out for yourself what they do. The unpeeling of Steward’s motives – a sort of wide reaching moral experiment on humanity – is interesting too, but then again there is a great deal of intruiging food for thought in The Box.
It’s a shame, then, that no matter how hard Kelly tries to squeeze the pieces together the jigsaw just won’t fit. Don’t expect the crazily spirally plot tangents to be resolved in any conventional sense, because they won’t. The film’s eerie something-wrong-in-da-burbs vibe is spot on but the screenplay is frustratingly loosy-goosy, smart enough to conjure interesting inventions but not smart enough – or simply unwilling – to tie them together cohesively. Kelly likes to make films viewers can watch two or three times and still not “get” and it shows. Leaving the cinema after watching The Box is like having bits of a delicious meal stuck in your teeth: occasionally there are bursts of flavour, tantalising and alluring, and sometimes you get a chunky bit, something you can chew on, but actually sitting down and eating a meal is vastly more satisfying than fossicing through your mouth for scraps.
Still, there is something weirdly invigorating about The Box, something absolutely refreshing about having so many bold ideas pelted at you. Perhaps there are too many ideas, and perhaps they’re too bold. But you can’t help but admire Richard Kelly’s temerity.
The Box’s Australian theatrical release date: October 29, 2009.