Richard Kelly seems to have burnt off a lot of the good will he procured with the legions of fans who, to this day, pour over every detail of his cryptic cult-sensation, Donnie Darko, as though it held the cure for cancer. His ambitious (and, in my opinion, misunderstood and sorely underappreciated) Southland Tales flopped with critics and audiences alike, while his latest film, The Box, performed even worse, inciting many a former fan to declare Kelly a one-hit-wonder of the highest magnitude. Having skipped over The Box during its theatrical run, I have to admit I was less than enthusiastic about watching the film when a review copy arrived, but, having now seen it, I can safely say it’s nowhere near as bad as I was led to believe. However, it’s not particularly all that good, either.
Set in 1976, The Box opens with a government memorandum detailing a bizarre accident, hospitalization, and discharge of one Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), going on to say that Steward is now working on some mysterious new project of which there is much speculation. We’re next introduced to Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz), a young Virginian couple with a teenage son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), who, despite their upper class digs and Arthur’s Corvette, are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Arthur’s a NASA aeronautics engineer, and seemingly a shoe-in for astronaut status, while Norma is a teacher at an exclusive private school, where Walter attends at a faculty discount.
One morning, the family is awoken by a visitor at their doorstep. When Norma rushes down to see who it is, she discovers a box on the stoop, and takes it inside, where Arthur opens it to reveal a rather plain looking wooden box with a big red button set beneath a locked glass dome. Save for a curt note informing them that they should expect a call from “Mr. Steward” at 5:00 PM that evening, the box is otherwise empty. Puzzled by the delivery, Norma and Arthur shrug it off and head off to work, where – after an odd run-in with one of her students – Norma learns that the school will be discontinuing the faculty discount program, thus making it next-to-impossible for them to afford their son’s tuition. Arthur gets some bad news of his own when he learns that his application to be an astronaut has been denied due to his failing the psychological exam.
Preoccupied by all of the day’s events, Norma almost forgets about the mysterious box that was delivered to their home earlier that morning. At 5:00 on the dot, Arlington Steward – his face hideously deformed from his accident - arrives, and anxious to get down to business. He informs Norma that the box she has in her possession offers she and her husband a very rare opportunity. With a push of the red button, the Lewis’ will be rewarded with one million dollars, tax free. There is a catch, however, and that is, once the button is pushed, someone they don’t know, somewhere in the world, will die. Arlington tells Norma she has 24 hours to discuss this with her husband and make a decision. After that, he will come and retrieve the box and the deal will be null and void. Arthur thinks this is all some sort of scam, and even dismantles the box, itself, revealing it to be nothing more than an empty shell. Still, the family needs the money, and, despite her skepticism, Norma hastily presses the button, setting in motion a chain of events that will change the Lewis’ lives forever.
Based on the short story by Richard Matheson “Button, Button” (which was previously adapted for 1986’s Twilight Zone reboot), The Box moves at a glacier’s pace throughout much of its running time, with a sparse, droning soundtrack, and a visual style that, while lush and quite appealing, lends the film a dreamy, hypnotic aesthete that only serves to make it seem to run on even longer. There’s a great idea, here, and the performances by Marsden and Diaz are quite solid and believable (Diaz, in particular, really surprised me here with her Virginia twang and dour demeanor), but Kelly’s pacing is so deliberate that it makes sitting through the film a bit of a chore, especially given the fact that the payoff is so obvious that most viewers will have seen it coming for miles. It’s certainly not the disaster I was expecting, however, and, with enough caffeine in your system, The Box makes for a moderately entertaining mindfuck, but, with some judicious editing and a lighter touch, it could have been much more.
Warner Brothers releases The Box on Blu-ray with an appealing 2.40:1 1080p transfer that offers a rich and sharply contrasted image brimming with fine detail and depth. Kelly’s visual style has an inherent softness to it that, at times, obscures detail and clarity, but it’s obviously a stylistic decision and no fault of the transfer. Colors are intentionally muted, with a moody mix of blues, grays, and blacks, but there’s occasional vibrancy, most notably in the Lewis’ 70’s appropriate kitchen and attire.
I had a few problems with the Dolby DTS HD soundtrack as dialogue was exceptionally low in the mix, making it difficult to hear at moderate volumes. The sound design, overall, isn’t particularly interesting, but there are occasional bursts of immersive surround effects, and the bassy drones and swells of the film’s score (orchestrated by indie-faves The Arcade Fire) are rich and robust, albeit rather high in the mix.
Extras are somewhat slim, with a somewhat staid commentary by Richard Kelly, three short featurettes (presented in HD, but barely amounting to 20 minutes of material), and a throwaway trio of “Music Video Prequels” that are basically shorts with vicarious ties to the film proper.
While The Box wasn’t as huge a disappointment as I was expecting, I can see how fans of Kelly may feel let down by the film, especially after years of hearing about his association with the project. Had I seen the film before all of the negative press, I, too, would have been disenchanted, but, seeing as how I expected much worse, my review, here, is probably a lot more positive than it would have been. Warner’s Blu-ray presentation offers an excellent image, but the audio suffers from an overall flat and uneven mix, while supplements are few and of questionable value. If you’re a die-hard Richard Kelly fanatic, you’ll probably want to pick this up, but even those who cherish Donnie Darko may want to give The Box a rental before committing to pressing the red button.