Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales was an unmitigated failure when it was released in 2006, disappointing diehard fans of Donnie Darko, misunderstood by critics, and unable to find any traction at the box office. Hollywood turned its back on the then 31 year old filmmaker, but he got another chance to prove he wasn’t a one-hit wonder a few years later with The Box. Today, the reception of Southland Tales is on the rise as its weirdness is settling in for new audiences. The Box, on the other hand, is yet to reenter the cinematic consciousness---it was a lower profile failure, but a failure nonetheless. Perhaps it is time to start talking about this strange thriller again.
Based on a Richard Matheson [author of I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come] short story, which was also adapted on a popular Twilight Zone episode, The Box starts with a simple yet intriguing premise. Happy couple Norma and Arthur Lewis are living in the quiet suburbs of Virginia. They have a stable home life and satisfying jobs [she is a professor, he is a scientist at NASA on the short-list to becoming an astronaut]. Without warning, they are visited by a deformed man named Mr. Steward [Frank Langella] who offers them a test. Presented with a simple box with a single button, if the young couple presses this button two things will happen: they will receive a million dollars tax-free cash and someone in the world will die. As intrigued as I am by this high concept, it could easily be a studio workshopped, director-for-hire kind of thriller. Richard Kelly makes sure that doesn’t happen.
It can’t go without saying that The Box is very weird in many ways. Cameron Diaz with a Southern accent; a young John Magaro with a foot fetish; inter-dimensional travel; zombified government lackeys---there is a lot to offer. Like Southland Tales, there is a specific pace and manner to the acting style that give off an unusual flavor. Diaz and Marsden, especially in their conversations contemplating pushing the button and the dramatic scenes at the conclusion, deliver their lines over-earnestly over a bed of incredibly melodramatic music. You could call most of this unintentional comedy, but there is no doubt Kelly knows what he is doing.
The two major setpiece scenes in the first act involving Mr. Steward, however, are immediately and impressively tense. The shift in tone is palpable. The first of those scenes, where Steward presents the title box and his experiment to Nora, really works---it is intriguing enough to forget the poor reputation of the film. When he returns, he is much more sinister in another remarkable scene. When he utters the centerpiece line of the film’s source, it is a chilling revelation. It is also absolutely clear that everything that comes after it strays away from the source and gives the film the obvious feeling of being adapted from a short story. It is a fantastic ending that happens to come about 30 minutes into the movie.
Shortly after the button is pushed, it becomes clear that The Box has turned into a dense puzzle, that there is a weird mystery going on daring to be solved. The plot becomes hidden by small hints and out-of-context clues that don’t add up. This is always a difficult line for a film to take: be too cloudy and it is easy to disengage, too silly to be taken seriously, often with a conclusion not satisfying enough given the intricate set-up. The Box doesn’t fully deliver under the pressure, but the ride is strangely fun. It also smartly ends on an emotional beat between two characters in another sociological experiment---though it isn’t quite as effective as the opening one.
There is an interesting, albeit loosely defined theme of human greed that Kelly is pushing at. It reveals itself mostly in dialogue when Steward is pressed about the parameters of his experiment---he says something to the effect that it would end if enough people simply didn’t press the button. The natural curiosity, the lack of responsibility for consequences, and [or course] the money make that an unlikely result, though. The are greater implications to what would happen if enough people fail in the experiment, though the film’s grander sci-fi element can certainly be substituted for our real-life relationships with war, the environment, or any other number of things that would/could eventually wipe us out.
According to IMDb, Richard Kelly has three projects in some state of pre-production, but the lack of any concrete information on any of them isn’t very promising. Between Southland Tales and The Box, two films from a distinct voice that wear their faults admirably, Kelly is a filmmaker I want to see more from. He hasn’t had a critical success since Donnie Darko became the cinematic voice of a generation and his follows up, while failures on certain levels, are more interesting, with more vision, than anything coming to multiplexes today.