Little Box of Horrors
Richard Kelly was not born to tell a simple story. The man has no interest in allowing his viewers to leave without something to think about, which would usually have yours truly doing cartwheels around the Hakari residence. But if there were ever a tale that required artistic restraint, it's The Box. Even if left in Hollywood's butterfingered grasp, its premise alone displays more ingenuity than most high-profile turkeys. Kelly sees fit to bestow upon The Box the royal treatment, which is fine, until it becomes less about entertaining the audience and more about letting Kelly go nuts with his fingerpaints.
Set in the 1970s, The Box tells of an average family confronted with a strange dilemma. Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) are both hit with setbacks at their jobs on the very same day. These events coincide with the arrival of an odd box on their doorstep, along with a tempting offer. Should they choose to press a button contained within the box, the dapper Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) will award them a cool $1 million. But as a result, someone they don't know will die. Whether or not they make the choice, I will not say, but Norma and Arthur soon learn that the powers behind the diabolical box are of an origin more fantastic than the happy couple will ever comprehend.
The Box is being marketed as a mainstream thriller, when it's anything but by-the-books. It began life as a story by the invaluable Richard Matheson, who put mankind's capacity for selfishness to the ultimate test. Do you accept the unknown and pray things get better, or do you erase your woes with a cure-all at someone else's expense? The rest writes itself, or, in this movie's case, it would if Kelly knew when to tone it down a bit. I wouldn't be so rude as to claim that Kelly's trying to duplicate Donnie Darko mania, but he's putting too much of himself into a story with no need for grandiose garnishes. References to the great beyond, teleportation, and even mind control are made, but what do they add up to? I attended the film with a friend who saw it as Kelly adding another wing to his cinematic Xanadu, yet all I saw was clutter hogging some prime real estate.
Working with his biggest budget yet, Kelly does turn The Box into a memorable visual experience. He utilizes spacious aircraft hangars for Arlington's headquarters, and the film itself comes with an impeccable '70s sheen reminsicent of that decade's finest psychological thrillers. But while The Box looks great and embraces themes I'll probably get after another viewing or five, the story's base elements take a massive toll. The first few scenes are the best, as they show nothing more than two people wrestling with a huge decision. But the moment the otherworldly is introduced, the human element seems virtually nonexistent, especially when the camera is trained on a hideously miscast Cameron Diaz (hard to tell what's more scary: the wallpaper or her accent). At least considerable slack is picked up by Marsden as the noble hubby and Langella as the enigmatic instigator.
There comes a point during The Box when it commences existing for its own benefit. The film invests quite a bit of faith in moviegoers seeing it through to the end, which may be a fulfilling sojourn for some. But not only is The Box beyond elaborate, it's also a flat-out bore, with true tension as rare a commodity as honest politicians. Consider your fingernails safe, folks.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG-13" for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.)