Thursday, 4 March 2010

Film Review: The Box

Based on "Button, Button", a short story by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson, The Box is the third film from cult director Richard Kelly, and while it has its moments - a few particularly effective chills and thrills right around the midpoint - at the end of the day, it's no Donnie Darko. Mind you, it's also a far cry from Southland Tales, Kelly's disastrous sophomore feature, the less said about which the better.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Early critical reception to The Box has been overwhelmingly negative, and let's be quite clear: this isn't a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. In many respects, The Box is a successful enough piece of stylish, thought-provoking entertainment that I'd recommend any interested parties ignore the off-putting buzz and come to their own conclusions. The trouble is, having made his directorial debut with the mind-melting Donnie Darko, everything Richard Kelly makes will be measured against that impossibly high watermark, and that's both a blessing and a curse. Rubbing shoulders with such company can only give his films more exposure, but more likely than not, they will ultimately fall foul of the comparison.

Given that, it's perhaps not the greatest idea for Kelly to court such speculation, but The Box is, as Donnie Darko was, a period piece. Set in 1976, against the height of NASA's spacefaring glory days, Norma and Arthur Lewis have fallen on hard times, so when an enigmatic man with a horrifying disfigurement delivers to them a box that could mean the end of their woes, they have some serious thinking to do. On the box, you see, is a button, and if they press the button, the mysterious man will give them $1m. The catch is that if they do, somewhere, someone - someone neither Norma nor Arthur know - will die.

It's a brilliantly simple high-concept, and once you're made it through 20 minutes of dull, unnecessary exposition, the potential of it positively screams. I don't think it's spoiling things to say that yes, they push the button. Of course they do; what kind of narrative could possibly come out of a couple discussing a philosophical quandary for an hour and a half? In any event, what follows, once Norma and Arthur have thrown caution into the wind and done the deed, is certainly the most accomplished part of The Box: a second act that isn't so much sci-fi as an incredibly unnerving creepshow. There's a touch of The Crazies in a chase around a labyrinthine library, more than a dollop of David Lynch in some of Kelly's deliberately stilted camerawork - one particularly memorable sequence has a man standing at a window in the background while little Walter plays Monopoly with his babysitter. It doesn't sound like much, but it's executed with such finesse, such understatement, that the goosebumps will have you.

Sadly, from there on out, The Box becomes a bit of a mess. Kelly takes his high concept too far, explicating on innumerable things that would have been better left unsaid; better, surely, had they been left to our imagination rather than subjected to needless talking heads which only exist to encourage further befuddlement on the part of the viewer. In the last act, Kelly seems to decide that there just hasn't been enough weirdness, and henceforth piles it on, thick and fast and completely, utterly wrong-headed. There are entire scenes that The Box would be a much better film without, scenes which mean to complicate the alluringly clear premise at the heart of the narrative, but serve only to muddy it, to numb whatever impact the climax might otherwise have had.

All of which is a real shame, because each the component parts of a truly great film are present and correct. The primary cast equip themselves well. Cameron Diaz doesn't have the most convincing Southern drawl, and the chemistry between she and James Marsden isn't up to much, but beyond those complaints, they play their parts well. Frank Langella, meanwhile, is a quiet revelation as Arlington Steward, the mysterious man with the box. As in Donnie Darko, the score is excellent, effective even when it's at its most bombastic, though Kelly goes with original music here rather than the who's-who of the 80s that made up the soundtrack to his first film. The period setting, too, is authentic, pulled off well without drawing too much attention.

Sadly, a good cast, a great premise and some fine set-design aren't enough to make The Box compulsive viewing; nor is the man with half a face or the sinister Santa. Kelly has all the right ingredients at hand, but in an attempt to top the brilliantly baffling finale of Donnie Darko, he rather squanders them. That's not to say The Box isn't an adequate way to pass an evening, only that it could have been so much more - if only it had been a little... less.

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