Director Richard Kelly is responsible for Donnie Darko, one of my favourite films of the past decade (in its original form, not the ridiculous Director’s Cut). Kelly is also to blame for the virtually unwatchable Southland Tales, a film that tanked when it was released and should either be avoided at all costs or utilized as a teaching aid in film school as a demonstration of how not to make a movie. I ranted about that one last year here.
So with one flick in the win column and another in the loser, the Queen and I watched The Box over the weekend with a keen eye on where Kelly’s latest would land. The story, if you haven’t heard, is based on “Button Button”, originally written by Richard Matheson, the man behind I Am Legend. The story was brought to life during the 1980’s revival of The Twilight Zone. In this adaptation, written by the director, it’s 1976 and a Virginian husband and wife (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) with mounting financial issues are presented with a box and an opportunity by a man missing half his face (a calm and spooky Frank Langella). Push the button and they’ll receive one million dollars. The only caveat is that someone, somewhere, will die. While it seems like a simple tale of morality, in Kelly’s hands it becomes something more.
I missed The Box when it was in theatres at the tail end of 2009 and I was pretty disappointed. I was hoping to support Richard Kelly, who while a clearly flawed director, is also ambitious and interesting and always willing to take some chances. In the case of The Box, he manages to score a great performance from Cameron Diaz, who in my mind is a fairly hit or miss actress (she misses by a mile in My Sister’s Keeper). He also gives James Marsden a chance to shine as a leading man, an opportunity that Marsden deserves way more of. Maybe one day we’ll see him as the title character from Vertigo’s classic Preacher series, as was mooted a few years back. Diaz and Marsden have a nice chemistry together and I felt as though they really agonized over their decision and it’s repercussions. As for the film’s other lead, Frank Langella, he is as ominous as he needs to be in his scenes throughout.
A whole bunch of genres are mixed into The Box – there’s elements of sci-fi and horror, along with some Area 51 and conspiracy theory elements which I really enjoyed. Of course, seeing as how it’s a Richard Kelly film, not everything adds up or makes sense. Don’t expect to totally get everything that’s going on if you watch the film. But unlike the disaster that is Southland Tales, the lack of total clarity in The Box didn’t really diminish my enjoyment of it. Instead, I just embraced the general sense of weirdness that the film was offering.
The Box didn’t light up the box office when it was releases, but perhaps it will find an audience on DVD. I hope it does, because even though Richard Kelly’s latest flick isn’t perfect, it’s nice to see a director trying to do something different in mainstream movies. I won’t say all is forgiven for Southland Tales, but with The Box, Kelly is moving in the right direction.