Sunday, February 7, 2010
The Box ***
Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella
Celia Weston, James Rebhorn, Sam Oz Stone, Ian Kahn
There's fluorescent green blood running through the theremin intoxicated veins of Richard Kelly's "The Box". Adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson, the movie is a throwback to sci-fi/horror films and TV shows- particularly "The Twilight Zone"-and like said productions sets its stage in the unassuming tranquility of the suburbs.
It's 1976 and Norma and Arthur Lewis (Diaz and Marsden respectively) are woken up one early morning by the doorbell. Norma opens and finds someone has left them a box containing a wooden contraption with a red button on top.
There's also a note that says they will be visited by someone that evening. They go on with their normal work days; Arthur, who works at NASA, learns that he has been dropped from the astronaut program because failed the psychological exam (perhaps an omen of things to come?) while Norma, who's a schoolteacher, is informed that she will no longer get tuition for her son Walter (Stone).
That afternoon they receive the visit of the mysterious Arlington Steward (a never creepier Langella) who explains to them the powers of the box and the button unit they received.
If they push the button they will receive one million dollars, completely tax free, but there's a catch; the minute they push the button someone they don't know will die.
Steward leaves, warning them that they have one day to make up their minds before he comes to retrieve the box.
After debating the matter and becoming overwhelmed by their economic misfortunes, Norma pushes the button.
Steward arrives to retrieve the box and give them their money; soon after, strange events begin to occur and before long the Lewis' are stuck in a labyrinth of deceit, stalkers, nose bleeding zombies, NASA investigations, alien conspiracy theories, NSA secrets and strange behavior from people they thought they knew.
It seems that only half the movie is Matheson's story and the crazier parts are all Kelly. The surprise isn't that such things come out of a person's mind, but that he makes them work as a movie.
In "The Box" Kelly doesn't hide the fact that this is homage in its purest form. The milky cinematography (done in digital video out of a bet of sorts) brings out a fuzzy sort of terror that recalls "Poltergeist" and "The Exorcist", while the strings heavy score (done by members of Arcade Fire) recalls some of Bernard Herrmann's greatest work.
The referential tone might result annoying to viewers who aren't in on the joke as they will probably hate the overacting of Marsden and Diaz.
Those who succumb to the movie will be delighted by the way the actors give in to the cheesiness Kelly comes up with. Forget the fact that they have to wear seventies clothing, the camp factor here lies in their late reactions, overworked lines and the way they still manage to convince us of the romantic backstory their characters share.
Kelly often tries to say too much and the movie sometimes borders complete ridicule, but by the end it really works more like a good film in B-movie disguise.
The most surprising thing about it all is how it achieves multiple readings. It works as a terrifying, postmodernist, existential drama unafraid to mix its Sartre with the Blob. In moments where the world seems to backfire on them it's a revelation to see Norma and Arthur go into discussions of their place in the world in contrast with others.
"Hell is other people seeing you for who you really are" says Norma to her students as she tries to explain existentialist theories. With its recurrent theme of "no exit" the movie flirts with Lynchean themes but unlike the too Freudian auteur, this one isn't afraid to pull out its "boos" out of the cheesiest of places.
"The Box" is also able to become scarily time appropriate given how it forces us to give a second look at the way people act when their survival is threatened.
In a world undergoing such critical economic times, it's difficult to avoid trying to empathize with the decision the Lewis' have to contemplate.
Kelly isn't afraid to ask if moral codes can be suspended or forgotten in the face of adversity. But before we're deep into an intellectual debate, Kelly is already scaring our pants off with a sudden thrill.
"The Box" might very well be the most entertaining movie about the recession made so far.