You’ve got to feel a bit for Richard Kelly. First, he fights to make his first film, Donnie Darko, which almost became a late nite Starz write-off before becoming a massive frat boy cult favorite. There’s his calling card; he’s made it…right? Tony Scott certainly thought so, adapting Kelly’s script for Domino. Flop. Alright, well maybe his movies just need his directorial touch. Southland Tales? Bomb. Hmm, well, why not make a movie for the big studios, at least it will get some play. Sure, you’ll have to go through test screenings and make requisite changes, but at least you’ll have an audience. So that’s just what Kelly did for his third feature, and after tons of audience feedback, he delivered his horror film fresh for the fall horror crowd. Warner then proceeded to release it a week after Halloween during one of the busiest horror movie Octobers on record. It, of course, tanked. Four months later and we’re getting the Blu-ray.
So was Kelly’s work under the studio system all in vain? Did they chisel away his authorial stamp? Or is it that indie movie or Cameron Diaz movie, Richard Kelly is going to ensure the vision you’re seeing on the screen is his and his alone? Of course, who cares about authorship if the whole thing stinks in the first place? Let’s pry open this elusive little box of a film.
It’s 5:44 (5+4+4=13 omg) and the Lewis’ are in bed. A doorbell startles Norma (Cameron Diaz). She asks her husband, Arthur (James Marsden, Disturbing Behavior, Gossip) what it was, and because he is a NASA employee he can tell her with relative certainty that it was a doorbell. She gets up. Okay, so on the doorstep is a box and a card. The box contains a small hydraulic switch and the note informs Norma that a man will be by later on to talk to her. Who is this guy? She can’t remember – is it a prank? When the cryptic and facially scarred Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, Brainscan) finally comes a knockin’ with a million dollar proposition, it’s clear this is far from a prank. The stakes are simple. Push the button and you are given a million dollars cash. The only catch is that someone you don’t know will die. Thousands of people die every day, every minute, so what’s one more?
Initially Norma can’t believe it, and sort of pushes it aside as she deals with the complexities of being a mother and a teacher at her son’s junior high. The temptation grows, however, when complications in life start to overwhelm. Her son’s prep school scholarship is lapsing, her husband was denied acceptance into the astronaut program and a student at school has brought out her insecurities in having a disabled foot. Only in a Richard Kelly movie would a toeless foot mutated by x-ray factor so casually into the plot. Anyway, when Norma begins to contemplate all the good that money could do, Arthur helps make her decision easier when he reveals that the box contains no working parts inside. How could it possibly cause any harm? After staring at it, through it, Norma impulsively pushes the switch.
Someone nearby – the wife of a NASA employee, actually, is shot, but almost simultaneously Arlington comes to her doorstep with the cash. Initially, the Lewis’ can’t believe the money is for real, but shortly after their fixations turn to the idea that they actually brought about the death of human life. Slowly, their lives start to unspool, and we’re not just talking mentally…we’re talking giant gravity-defying teleportation pillars filled with water crazy. Random people are getting nosebleeds, coming to their house, kidnapping her child. Decisions in life always come with a catch, I guess, and it’s only in the finale that we realize that those decisions are all interconnected.
I hate movies that are smugly “weird” not for the sense of plot, but just to seem deep or important or obtuse. It’s at worst condescending and at best boring, something that rarely works outside satire or self-reflexivity like in the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Geeky wunderkind, Richard Kelly, is certainly no stranger to self-imposed weirdness. He’s thrived on it. The Box begins quaintly enough as a moral drama, but once thine button pushed it quickly goes into a fit of crazy.
The disappointing thing, though, is that that sense of wild inexplicable anarchy like Polanski or Jodorowsky is not there, instead a weirdness stemmed by a focus on odd period detail over sustaining an actual plot. Much time has been spent in recreating actual NASA meetings and including incidental television shows or cans of soup . We learn later through the commentary that this was all in an effort to recreate the ideal of his real parents’ lives, since his dad did work at NASA and did attend those meetings, and his mom did have a weird foot and did teach at his junior high. It’s nice to have the clout to make a personal film with the likes of Cameron Diaz and a big Warner Brothers budget, but when you’re working within the confines of a genre driven by strings, none of that stuff creates any kind of melody.
The Box, when it’s not weaving together insubstantial autobiographical aspects of Kelly’s life or hiding numeric codes for the number 13 (their home address, 7321, adds to Jason’s unlucky number!), does however offer up a few momentary social insights. It’s no surprise, given that the source material is based on the “Button, Button” verbage by horror legend Richard Matheson. Langella’s monologue on the significance of the box, and how we essentially live out our existence in them is actually quite telling. More interesting, even, is the unexplored notion that everything that occurs in The Box is not driven by the supernatural, government conspiracies or advanced technology…but merely the clockwork predictability of the goods and bads of human nature. Kelly may dress the film up in a second act filled by weird alien conspiracy, but the hidden heart of the film is actually in the Twilight Zone-ish twist of irony that makes up the satisfying conclusion. Sometimes the easiest answers are shrouded behind the most complex questions.
As a horror film, The Box is a tepid failure. Nothing in it is scary. Kelly is instead infatuated with examining weirdness like a boy poking a dead bird with a stick. He lingers on shots of Langella’s lightning struck face or Diaz’s gimp foot not for fear, but for geeky curiosity. Kelly’s a smart guy, you can tell that from his commentary, but he seems more like he should be some social observer rather than a filmmaker. I could see him writing quandaries about our existence in the “Opinions” section of a local paper. Or collecting bugs. As a filmmaker, though, I think the gig’s up. He’s had a fun ride, but if The Box proves anything it’s that if Kelly doesn’t start making movies that relate to audiences, he won’t be working here much longer.
With The Box, Kelly puts the horse before the cart, making a personal film that just happens to be a genre film, rather than making a genre film with a defining personal stamp. Instead of making a mature modern response to Saw’s gimmicky moral dilemmas, he instead languishes in 1976 Virginia (1+9+7+6=21…fail) with Cameron Diaz’s Razzie worthy drawl. He may have gotten to recreate some nostalgia on Hollywood’s dollar, but unfortunately he’s also doing it on our time, too. I wish Langella would have given me an option of taking the money.
The Box was shot in HD on the Panavision Genesis, and as a result doesn’t quite have the sharp edging or realistic grain pattering that you’d get with big studio 35mm on Blu-ray. In close-up, colors don’t quite hold, with colorful digital noise in the bits where color uniformity should be strongest. Considering how fast Cameron Diaz’s face seems to be leathering these days, that might be a good thing. The film employs a warm, nostalgic color palette, and for the most part the aesthetic is flattering. Edges are softer and even a bit more muddled than they should be, and given that the nearly two-hour film is stuck on a single layer disc with a bunch of extras, the compression is no doubt a hindrance. Being all digital, it’s of course perfectly clean, but sadly the wow factor just isn’t there.
This didn’t entirely rock my 7.1 setup, but the DTS-HD track included here is pretty crisp. Other than obvious right to left pans, like the opening typewriter text prelude or when cars drive left to write, there isn’t a whole lot of left-right directionality a-play. There are, though, some effective moments separating the front and the back, with echoes and ominous catcalls registered faintly in the rears. The showstopper is the flooding water sequence, which conveys an effective sense of envelopment with the deep water swooshing from all sides. Otherwise, dialogue can at time seem a tad thin, especially for a new film, and the well composed score doesn’t really register with the weight it should. Decent, but if you’re going to bore me with a film, at least give me some techy stuff to marvel over.
I didn’t care for the film, but this is the kind of muddy picture where enough thought went into all the obtuse references that extras illuminating the process would no doubt be beneficial. Thankfully, rather than just dumping this off like the big studios do with most B.O. duds, Warner has dressed up this box in more than just requisite four corners. First we get an engaging, refined solo commentary from Richard Kelly. Rather than reminisce loosely on on-set anecdotes, Kelly instead approaches the film from an organized creative standpoint, expanding on what’s happening on screen usually as it pertains to story. He makes the film seem a lot more interesting than it is, and to his credit it’s clear there was at least a lot of thought put into all the nerdy details.
Next is an 11-minute featurette entitled “The Box: Grounded in Reality”. This is something you don’t see every day – a director talking entirely about how the movie is an extension of himself, complete with lengthy interviews with his parents. Not since Scorsese have we seen such an effective use of a director’s parents to illuminate the genesis for a filmmaker’s storytelling hang-ups. Well edited with effective supporting visuals, this presents a great framework with which to view the film.
Much less interesting are collections of music video “prequels” and visual effects deconstructions. Maybe I’m jaded by the whole thing, but I don’t know, you can only see so many pieces showing guys compositing behind a computer monitor for it all to just look the same. In the same vein, I guess, to those awful YouTube Donnie Darko prequel shorts, the music videos manage to really make the main film seem really lame. It’s basically score from the film set to a bunch of seventies-era handheld video of various sites used in the movie. Bleh. But hey, these are Blu-ray exclusives (as well as everything else listed up to this point), so consider yourself lucky you’ve got them. Or not.
The last extra, and this is the only extra on the DVD, is a short collection of questions and answers with the great Richard Matheson. “Richard Matheson: In His Own Words” runs 5-minutes and despite the fact that he can’t answer the questions in complete sentences (write much?) he does give an honest portrait of his life. Although choppy, the piece effectively details how he got his start, some of his favorite works, and how he’s managed to make a lasting career about exploring human nature. He also talks specifically about the short story that is the basis for The Box, although he doesn’t really address the differences the film introduces. Although Matheson has been no stranger to supplements, it’s always nice to hear the man again.
Finally, proving Warner’s dedication to supporting different consumers with different playback needs, buyers of the Blu-ray receive a second disc that contains not only an iTunes friendly Digital Copy, but also the standard def DVD version as well. The time sensitive code sort of worries me, but I guess nobody will be thinking about this movie in a few months time anyway.
The Box is a failure of a film – with director Richard Kelly interested more in replicating incidentals from his childhood rather than servicing the genre. The resulting film is not scary, not dramatic and worst of all not interesting. There are a few sociological flourishes given Richard Matheson’s provoking source material, but otherwise it’s as blunt and obtuse as Diaz’s deformed foot. The video underperforms with noise and a lack of overall clarity, but the sound mix does provide a few nice moments. The extras are probably the best part, proving that even if the film is a dud that doesn’t mean it wasn’t made with effort and even insight. On the whole, there are thousands of disc boxes I’d recommend over this one, including better Matheson adaptations like Trilogy of Terror and The Legend of Hell House. Hell, even Jaws 3D.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
I have to disagree with you rhett, I really enjoyed the movie and look forward to watching it again. Otherwise, another great review!
Gotta disagree too. I thought this was a good movie with great performances and direction. The script could use some work, especially around the 2nd act, but I still eagerly await what Kelly does next.
I want to see this, although I haven't been impressed with anything else Kelly has done. I don't like filmmakers who make films for the masses that don't have meaning to anyone but themselves!
i really liked this movie. sure it took a while to understand after first viewing but after i thought about it...i understood it. its a very thought provoking movie. i really did enjoy it.
It's certainly a kooky film,at times perhaps unintentionally funny,but I have to say it really grew on me.It's so off the wall and really goes places that you just don't expect.It wasn't afraid to swing for the fences and I guess I respected that.Even the score was big and old school ominous.I saw it in the theater and found myself enngaged by it (I had seen SOUTHLAND TALES in the theater too and hated it) and,despite the tepid box office it wouldn't surprise me if it developed a bit of a cult following.After all,DUNE,another domestic flop ,did,so did Kelly's own DONNIE DARKO.Who knows .
I'd say this is my least favorite of Kelly's three films so far, but I still liked it very much. I really enjoyed how he expanded on Matheson's story while adding his own unique touch to the material. The library scene was pure Kelly. I would've given Gillian Jacobs the lead role over Diaz though.
I knida agree with rhett. I think this flick could have been done so much better, especially with just simple explainations. It's funny that the overall point of the movie kinda plays out like an after school special - one of life's little lessons. It's interesting enough just to keep you wanting to know what the hell is going on, but the overall way reality unfolds is done quite poorly in my opinion. I thought the best part was when Scarlet Begonias was playing at the rehearsal dinner :)
"The Box is a failure of a film"
Rhett sums it up really nicely!
I think the biggest complaint is the way everything unfolded. Started out really good then the film takes a shit on itself.
Appalling drawl from Diaz, who is miscast in this--none of her bright appeal is present. The film is another stumble for Kelly.
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