Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "The Box"

Grade: C-plus

Richard Kelly, the writer and director of the much-loved (by others, not me) Donnie Darko and the much-loathed Southland Tales, has a thing for the apocalypse. Like those films, his latest, The Box, is sincere and sinister and inevitably ambitious, a serious work that insists on its own seriousness even when it edges toward the preposterous. As in his earlier films, he is again using genre (and pretty actors) as a vehicle to ask questions about the human condition (and conditioning) amid a thicket of high, low and trash cultural illusions and against a backdrop of impending doom. But the end isn't nigh on Kelly's world. It's here.

The similarities among all three of his features (he also wrote the screenplay for Domino) are striking and suggest that Kelly is developing a worldview, puzzling through the great questions, or fast-working himself into a creative impasse, maybe all three. Based on Button, Button, a short story by fantasy writer Richard Matheson, The Box is the first of the movies Kelly has directed that he didn't write from the ground up. This doesn't much matter, because the original story, which was first published in Playboy in 1970 and runs about 10 pages, is merely a humble scaffolding for Kelly's mazelike narrative, with its sharp and snaking turns, its periodic dead ends and various pathway choices.

Navigating those paths alongside the audience are Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) and her husband, Arthur (James Marsden), an attractive, seemingly happy middle-class couple who in 1976 are living in a pleasant Virginia suburb with their only son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone). Norma, a teacher at a private high school, and Arthur, an engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who's hoping to make astronaut, live somewhat beyond their means, or so she says. There's a sports car in the driveway, and Walter attends the school where Norma teaches Satre's No Exit to rich whelps more interested in her limp. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that after they receive an offer to earn a million dollars, they grab it.

As in the short story, the payout comes with a shocking condition: they have to murder someone first by pressing a red button on a curious little box, or so says the man making the offer, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Norma doesn't seem terribly shaken by this stipulation or by the fact that she can see some of Steward's teeth through the hole in his cheek. (Don't worry about it, he says, and she doesn't, though I did.) Kelly doesn't seem too concerned about the moral angle, either, which he takes his time getting to, creating a needless complication in a movie overstuffed with complications, including severed toes, watery portals to another dimension, the Mars Viking mission, murdered wives, tall ships and even, alas, the twin towers.

A lot happens. Some of what happens tracks, some does not. Sometimes this matters, sometimes not. The actors are fine, and to watch Norma trying to persuade Arthur that they need to push the button is to realize that Diaz should go dark more often. Marsden seems a little lost (you can't blame him), but he handles the story's hairpins. He's also better served by the digital cinematography than Diaz; shot by Steven Poster, the movie has been washed in 1970s browns that serve the vibe if not her skin tone. But Kelly leans too heavily on traveling shots here, and his habit of slowly moving the camera toward something or someone, a creeping meant to intensify suspense, soon feels like mannerism.

Matheson, perhaps best known for his novel I am Legend (the basis of the Will Smith thriller), has described the idea behind his short story as "a sacrifice of human dignity in exchange for a specific goal." That more or less describes the themes, which he bundles together with unadorned prose, a heavy serving of dread and a gratifying, blunt, O. Henry-like kicker. It's the kind of ending that can make you laugh out loud because the final twist of the knife is at once so expected and yet nonetheless pleasurable. (Part of the delight, of course, is having that expectation met.) Like many fine genre works, the story satisfies your appetite for tales of this type and leaves you a little something extra to savor.

For his part, Kelly has an uneasy relationship to genre, or maybe he just needs a writing partner, someone to help him edit all his bright and dim ideas. The Box is alternately fluid, and rarely dull, (though it is a little, on occasion). But too often it also feels strained, which might be expected from any movie that name-drops No Exit in one scene and the grim 1970s sitcom What's Happening!! in the other. There are, as with his previous films, visual gifts, like the spooky image of an airplane hangar glowing in the night and the odd image of Norma's little toe waving like a finger. But Kelly is so buys sampling genres and confusing the issue that he rarely gives you time or space to enjoy them. In the end, he often seems as lost as his characters, trapped in a Pandora's box of his own making.

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