Sunday 8 July 2018

From the archive: "The Box"

A stranger shows up on your doorstep, scarred from a lightning strike yet otherwise respectable in appearance. He hands you a box with a button on top, instructing that two things will happen should said button be pushed: one, someone somewhere in the world - someone you don't know - will die, and two, you will receive a million dollars in cash for your troubles. ("Tax free," the stranger adds, with a flourish.) Would you push it? Such is the quandary facing married couple Cameron Diaz and James Marsden in Richard Kelly's new thriller The Box, adapted from Richard Matheson's short story Button, Button. It's 1976 when the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives on their doorstep, on the very day Diaz's Sartre-teaching schoolmarm learns her contract is being terminated, and Marsden's NASA engineer has his application to join the astronaut pool turned down. More precise yet, it's Christmas, which means we could read the couple's new toy as the ultimate test of goodwill to all men: initially prepared to push the button if it comes to it, they have second thoughts upon learning that, once deployed, the box will be removed from them and passed onto someone they do not know - thus putting themselves at risk.

We could equally read The Box as a way of bringing the distant horrors of overseas warfare, whether Vietnam, Iraq or even the Cold War, with its own weapons of mutually assured destruction, squarely back home: push a button, soldier, and somebody you've never met perishes. (It makes perfect sense that Langella should come to this from playing Nixon - his character's name doubly significant in this militaristic context - and that Marsden should be so riled by a waiter sending a peace sign his way.) Certainly the world Matheson and Kelly set out is one showing significant signs of trauma even before the box shows up. Diaz has lost several toes in a childhood accident; Marsden fails the astronaut exam on his psych evaluation; there's a sudden onrush of nose bleeds. Even those who aren't dying here are hurting in some way. After 2006's sprawling, uncontrollable Southland Tales - which squandered some of the goodwill this filmmaker had earned with Donnie Darko - it's clear Kelly intends this as a more focused and considered piece of storytelling; he's working his way through that phase of self-indulgence M. Night Shyamalan is still labouring in. (Certain scenes in The Box, involving a motel swimming pool with supernatural properties, recall Shyamalan's mystical misfire Lady in the Water.)

Still, there's no denying the film remains a somewhat erratic experience. Kelly badly fumbles his material after an intriguing first hour, stumbling into an interlude in a celestial library that shifts the narrative onto a higher plain when it might have done better to keep at least one foot on the ground. Where the best material here (the loving recreation of a busy 1970s household, the shadowy presence of National Security agents) apes Spielberg, the least convincing aspires towards Kubrick: Marsden, we discover, has been working on a Mars exploration project with none other than Arthur C. Clarke, and 2001 looks to be the inspiration for the library's multiple-choice stargates. I'd still be tempted to see The Box for the unified ominousness of its first hour - that hard-to-achieve sense that every scene, no matter how throwaway it seems, is somehow key to the whole; that sense that transforms even a humdrum conversation about turning off the Christmas tree lights at night into a matter of life and death. If the middle act drops the ball - and the box, come to think of it - then the tough choices Matheson and Kelly leave their characters with really do stay with you: the film doesn't all work, but it offers few easy ways out of its central conundrum.

(December 2009)

The Box screens on BBC2 tonight at 10.55pm.

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