Let’s ring some changes; I was not wowed by Richard Kelly’s The Box back in 2009, and now I’ve changed my mind. The Box has a great premise; a hard-up couple are approached by a stranger who offers them a box with a big red button to be pushed. If they press it, they get a million dollars. But they do so in the knowledge that someone unseen to them will die as a result. It’s a scenario taken from a Twilight Zone episode, Button Button by Richard Matheson, but Kelly uses it as a jumping off point to create something than didn’t satisfy me or many audiences at the time. But now…
Good casting helps; Frank Langella has just the right kind of sinister charm to make for a great villain, and his Mr Arlington Steward oozes menace every time he appears; a horrendous lightning-bolt burn adds to his unsettling nature. And James Marsden and Cameron Diaz are ideal as NASA engineer Arthur Lewis and his English teacher wife Norma, first seen delivering a lecture on Sartre’s No Exit. The title of that play, about being trapped in hell/purgatory, is later seen written on the windshield of the couple’s car as they leave a party; but what does that mean? By then, the Lewis family have pressed the big red button, but the money doesn’t salve their conscience; they now feel guilty, hunted like criminals, and no good will come with from their Faustian pact with the dark forces involved.
Are we dealing with sinister US govt agencies, or experiments by aliens, or something else? The Box taps into some established conspiracy theories about NASA’s origins, but doesn’t give up answers easily, and with a fightback never really on the cards, the conclusion isn’t satisfying first time around. But on a repeat viewing, there’s tonnes to admire about the unconventional way Kelly realises the themes of the original story; using autobiographical detail, Kelly repurposes Matheson’s homemade urban legend as something that cuts to the core of the dark side of the capitalist dream; your own success is built directly on someone else’s pain and distress, and that’s the deal we all have to live with.
The Box still frustrates, but with strong, nostalgic images mixed with visions of nightmarish realities, this is also peak Kelly, riding high on the still-strange Donnie Darko and even Southland Tales; sadly, he’s been less prolific in the last ten years. Everything has a price, and that price cannot be quantified at a distance; Arthur and Norma find out the hard way that a long spoon isn’t enough to keep the devil from the door, and this lush, intelligent, frustrating film is probably better for keeping the precise nature of its mystery intact; that’s what makes The Box’s central metaphor sing.