Richard Kelly | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
The writer-director of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales applies that same schtick to a combined adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story Button, Button (previously adapted into an ’80s Twilight Zone episode), and the life story of his parents.
It’s almost Christmas, 1976, when a mysterious package is left on the doorstep of teacher Norma (Cameron Diaz) and her NASA employee husband Arthur (James Marsden). It contains a box with a button, and that afternoon Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, with a chunk of his face missing thanks to CGI) visits to explain what it means: if they press the button, someone they don’t know will die, and Norma and Arthur will receive $1 million cash; or they can not press it, and nothing happens. They have just 24 hours to decide.
It’s an intriguing “what would you do?” premise, which Matheson apparently lifted from a psychology class discussion scenario. I believe that’s about the extent of the short story too, which is all of six pages long — not exactly feature-length. Kelly has bulked it up by expanding the characters, who are now based on his parents to an almost freakish degree, and a massive back-end extension (the short story accounts for 30 to 40 minutes of the two-hour film) that heads deep into the same “what the…?” territory that he mined in his previous directorial efforts.
In the case of the former, Kelly’s dad really did work at NASA, his mum really was a teacher, and she really did have a foot disability, for which Mr Kelly Sr. and his NASA chums really did engineer a kind of prosthetic to help her resultant limp. What a nice tribute to his supportive parents and their devotion to one another, eh? At the start, perhaps, but by the end of the film you may be wondering what the writer-director’s subconscious wants to do to his ma and pa…
As for what that plot entails… I shan’t spoil it. Suffice to say it’s better explained than the ending of Donnie Darko and infinitely more comprehensible than Southland Tales, even though mysteries and questions remain. That’s fine in my book (I loved Donnie Darko), but the story that leads to said inconclusions isn’t all that. To boil it down, it takes a story that was fine at its short length, and attempts to add all kinds of explanations and expansions that just feel needless. It’s B-movie schlocky.
In fact, The Box is at its best when it almost embraces that genre side. There are some fantastically creepy sequences; genuinely discomforting lo-fi scares. They’re not inherently undermined by the plodding dramatic sections or the kooky sci-fi wobbly bits (or even the bizarre, oddly dated, slightly uncomfortable thematic reading suggested by who always presses the button), but they leave the unnerving parts to function as isolated instances of quality horror moviemaking rather than a consistent mood or tone.
What could function well as an indie-level thriller is further undermined by abundant, therefore costly, CGI. Whether that’s Langella’s facial disfigurement (what could’ve been make-up is actually a complex array of tracking dots, green face-paint, motion-control cameras, and so on; all used merely to place him in simple dialogue scenes), or wide shots of ’70s Virginia, with a computer-adjusted skyline, computer-animated cars, and computer-painted snow. It’s not that the effects work is poor (though don’t look too closely at those cars), but that it screams “this must be special effects!” when you don’t want such distractions.
For all that can actually be ignored, Diaz’s performance sadly can’t be missed. On the evidence of this, she should stick to the lowest-common-denominator comedies and comedy-action movies that made her the one-time highest-paid Hollywood actress (she may still be for all I know, but films like this aren’t the reason why). Maybe it’s not her fault, maybe it’s the inconsistent and inexplicable Southern accent she’s been landed with. The only reason for it is that Kelly’s mother has one, but the only favour it does Diaz is as an excuse for her generally poor acting. At least the rest of the cast are up to scratch — in fact Marsden, who I can only recall as stick-in-the-mud Cyclops in the first three X-Men movies, is practically a revelation.
The Box should have been a film we all discussed for years to come, its “what would you do”-ness providing an Indecent Proposal for the 21st Century (as other reviewers have suggested). Sadly the water is muddied by a series of crazy twists and out-there revelations, which sometimes pay off in atmospheric individual sequences, but overall feel… wrong. With Donnie Darko Kelly showed an overabundance of promise. He’s still not fulfilled it, but does present moments of brilliance that suggest we shouldn’t give up hope yet, and which render The Box at least watchable. For that, my score errs on the side of generosity.
The UK TV premiere of The Box is tonight at 11:20pm on BBC One.