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The Box is Another Mind-Trippy Flick from Richard Kelly

The Box
Written and directed by Richard Kelly from the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson
Warner Bros., 2009

Richard Kelly broke into this decade with Donnie Darko, a movie that surrounded a sci-fi/horror tale with a human drama filled with interesting characters.  Really, the sci-fi was just an interesting little thread for the drama at large, it wasn’t what the movie was really about.  Since 2001, Darko has probably become the biggest cult hit of the last ten years.  It took forever for Richard Kelly to follow that up with Southland Tales, a movie that I’m still scratching my head over.  Now, Kelly returns with The Box, and it looks like this guy’s imagination gets the best of him at times.

Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) is a teacher with a damaged foot that causes a limp, and her husband Arthur (James Marsden) is an aspiring astronaut who currently works for NASA’s science department.  They have a son, and times are about to get tough: the faculty discount for teachers’ children is about to get cut, the more-than-qualified Arthur is going to get turned down by NASA, and there’s an operation Norma needs on her foot that will have to be put off.  Enter Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who we know from the beginning of the film as a burn victim who has been resuscitated and is going around to private residences offering a device of some sort with unknown purposes.

The device is a wooden box with a button on the top of it.  Push the button, and somewhere on Earth, someone you don’t know dies.  In exchange, you get a million dollars.  Steward lets Norma and Arthur think about it for a day before he comes back, where, should the button not be pressed, he will take it back, “reprogram” it, and leave.

Seems as though Steward is merely an employee for a higher power, conducting an experiment.  And Arthur and Norma want to know what the meaning of all this is.  Unfortunately, delving further means having to deal with Steward’s “employees,” all wired into his own conscious, all reporting what they see and hear.  There is an absolutely trippy, and I feel, unnecessary, section in the middle that confused the hell out of me where Arthur has to find the correct “gate” to enter or suffer eternal damnation.  This is where Kelly gets into having an idea and just can’t let it go.  Perhaps it has some higher meaning, but it is utterly confounding.  Have others had to pick the correct gate before?  And then, we have to decide whether Arthur did indeed pick the correct one, or really did suffer eternal damnation.  I don’t even know that it matters.  It seems like the same things would have happened whether this entire section was in the movie or not.

One thing that is good about The Box is that it does offer lots of room for discussion.  All of Kelly’s films have tangents where you wonder if it’s just an imagination run wild or an interesting piece of a whole you can’t completely get your head around.  In this way, he’s a lot like David Lynch, although I think Lynch many times just likes being weird for the sake of being weird.  Kelly, on the other hand, has this spontaneity that can bewilder and entertain, and many times I think he’s exploring ideas that may not have anything to do with the story on the whole, but it fits somehow.

Southland Tales has a small chance of being seen by me again, but The Box has a much higher probability.  This movie seems tailor-made for multiple viewings.  I can see why it’s getting 2 1/2 stars on average.  It’s a movie with lots of good, but lots of things nobody can quite understand.  The “experiment on mankind” thing takes on the quality of being a bit preachy, and since I’m already tired of being told how evil I am in being a human, this comes off as a bit of a flaw. Time will tell with this one.  If you want to see something that is just plain interesting, and might put your brain on overdrive, this is for you.

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