Let me start this review by saying I love Donnie Darko. More specifically I love the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that not only did Richard Kelly excise my favorite song on the soundtrack (Echo and the Bunnymen's Killing Moon) from the director's cut of the film, but the added scenes and pages from the time travel book actually over-explained what was happening and removed the element that I was so fond of- being able to apply your own philosophy to the ending. In short, too much Richard Kelly made the movie worse.
Then we have Southland Tales, Kelly's follow up to Darko, a movie which is an absolute train wreck by all standards. It's got an interesting cast, a compelling premise (if you can even figure out what it is amongst the sprawling, unfocused mishmash), and some great moments, but it never adds up to much. Definitely way too much Kelly in there. But, as that was his second outing, and just about every filmmaker is subjected to what has become known as "the sophomore slump", a general phenomenon whereby promising young filmmakers with one fantastic feature under their belts get too high on their horses and produce a steaming turd as a result, it was only fair to give The Box a solid chance.
I was willing to give Richard Kelly a pass for Southland Tales, so I went into The Box with high expectations. And why shouldn't I? It's based on the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson, the same guy that gave us I Am Legend (which was much cooler pre-Will Smith as a novel of the same name, the Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth, and the Charlton Heston 70's romp The Omega Man.) In the story, as in the film, a man presents an unhappy couple with a mysterious box. Inside the box, there is a button which, if pressed, will cause two things to happen: 1. the couple will get a tax-free payment of $1 million dollars and 2. someone they don't know will die. They have 24 hours to make a decision. This moral dilemma is the crux of the film, but it has been vastly expanded Richard Kelly-style.
The unhappy couple in the film version is played by James Marsden and Cameron Diaz. And that's where the problems start. While I've never been fond of Marsden as an actor (he's incredibly mediocre as Cyclops in the X-Men films), he gets a lot to do in The Box- a lot that he's not entirely capable of doing. All nitpicking aside, he's decent here, both believable and natural, given the bizarre things he's asked to do. It's Cameron Diaz that presents the biggest challenge for the film. While she was the perfect blonde in There's Something About Mary and Charlie's Angels, and downright chameleonic in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, she sticks out like a sore thumb in The Box. The film is set in Virginia in the 1970's and for that reason, Kelly required her to have a southern accent (because everyone who lives there talks like that, right?), which only accents the woodenness of her performance. Even after you become accustomed to the forced accent, her emotional scenes seem to flatline (see the climax to know what I mean).
The biggest saving grace The Box has are the talents of Frank Langella. Langella plays Arlington Steward, the mysterious man who delivers the box to Marsden and Diaz. Steward's appearance is gruesome, as a third of his face was burned off after being struck by lightning. It's what Two-Face might have looked like if Christopher Nolan had decided to be a little more realistic. Langella is infinitely interesting, a product of his long career and adept training in the craft. His scenes are repeatedly watchable, and it is for this reason alone that I would watch The Box again.
One of the more interesting things Kelly has bolted onto The Box is the time and setting- Langley, Virginia in the 1976, to capitalize on the first Mars probe landing, which played to both my love of nostalgia and to my fascination with other worlds. It's one of those things that Kelly sets up, but doesn't actually solidly connect to what's happening, though you expect he will.
The film has a lot to build up, and it takes its sweet time to do so. The pace was pretty slow, but it didn't bother me too much, as the labyrinthine plot and well-formed tone of the film kept me firmly attentive throughout. It's how it all comes together that ultimately disappoints. When the big moment came, I should have felt sick. I should have wanted to cry or at least pity the poor couple. Instead, I didn't really care much. The gut-wrenching ending just kind of fizzled. Why, you ask? Part of it probably had to do with the actors' performances, part of it had to do with the way it was executed. Kelly builds up a lot of steam throughout the picture, only to let it all slip through his fingers in the end.
I'm not sure what I was expecting, and truth be told, if I had only read the script, it probably would have knocked my socks off. No, the thing that bothered me the most was Richard Kelly getting in the way of his own material. While the film is not as overly self-indulgent as Southland Tales, there are clearly traces of Kelly screaming "This is MY story!" throughout- from Darko-esque handwriting messages on frosted car windows to cheesy-looking CGI water effects. Likewise, the production design choices are bold and prominent; while they are impressive and fitting, they are sometimes too loud for their own good. The wallpaper in the couple's home is a prime target of criticism. Much like the carpet in The Shining, you may not remember the film, but you will definitely remember that wallpaper.
Despite these faults, The Box is an engaging and sometimes thought provoking film. Kelly's blending of thrilling drama and supernatural activity is on an interesting path, even though it may not fully deliver. Kelly has said that he wants to direct someone else's script next. That prospect sounds fantastic to me. While I don't think the problems with The Box lie in its script so much as its direction, having Kelly separate himself from his auteur-like nature may help him fully realize his next Donnie Darko.