Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Review: The Box
Richard Kelly is a frustrating talent. His first film, Donnie Darko, while a commercial flop (being released in the wake of 9/11 didn't help), achieved unparalleled cult status since being released on DVD, prompting midnight showings and even the release of a "Director's Cut". His second film, Southland Tales, while ambitious, was largely panned as too sprawling and convoluted. In his newest film The Box, Kelly attempts to split the difference, for better or worse.
The plot of The Box is simple. A couple is delivered a wooden box, which houses a red button. A man later arrives with the key to said box and a proposition. If they press the button, they will received 1 million dollars and a person they do not know will die. They have 24 hours to decide. The fabric of this story is based on a short-story by Richard Matheson entitled "Button, Button", but the parallels end within the first 40 minutes or so.
For this film, Kelly was given a budget of 30 million, much more than his prior two films, but it's hard to say exactly where the money went. I'm sure a large sum went towards casting Cameron Diaz and Frank Langella (who's fantastic here, by the way), and I'm going to assume the rest was spent on sets, donuts, etc. Kelly has said that he envisioned this film as something "commercial while still retaining his artistic sensibility". While an admirable goal, the film falls short on both fronts.
What made Donnie Darko such a relatable and successful picture was the cyclical nature of the story and the resolution that gives a context to and adds layers to earlier events. As a result, you feel compelled to watch it again with the new subtexts in place. In The Box, Kelly spends too much time attempting to instill the sense of confusion and determinism of Donnie Darko, before he considers any sort of resolution. Payoffs only work if you are able to establish suspense and maintain the audience's attention until the end. This worked fanastically in Donnie Darko largely because Jake Gyllenhaal played Donnie as both smart and disturbed, digesting the riddles and the symbolism with a pure sense of curiosity. In The Box, the characters actions are wholly selfish and motivated by fear. As a result, the whisperings of strangers, the philosophical passages and the dusty scientific theories don't feel like pieces of a mysterious puzzle, they just feel trite and Shyamalanesque. Sadly, the cyclical conclusion could have worked if the whole thing hadn't jumped the rails well before.
James Marsden does a good job of looking confused/conflicted for the better part of this movie, and Cameron Diaz, while not abysmal, feels woefully miscast as a literature teacher at a private school. The art direction does a great job in recreating the mid-70's and the camera work is solid as well, adding tension when the plot doesn't deflate it. Maybe Kelly is a one trick pony, whose existential themes of human nature and the supernatural were all but exhausted in Donnie Darko, forcing him to resort to stale rehashes since. Maybe his hands are tied by the studios and he has had to edit and cut so much that the end product is reduced to a couple of interesting kernels of philosophy with rivers of pretension and incoherence in between. In either case, many directors have done much more with less.