There's a bridge that a new director has to cross after creating a great film from their freshman attempt, one that'll cement their place as a strong filmmaker and not just a one-note wonder. Donnie Darko blipped Richard Kelly's name on the radar because of its challenging conceptualization about time travel, all within a stellar-crafted '80s environment. Many largely anticipated his follow up, Southland Tales, but the results weren't nearly as compelling; his portrait of consumerism and patriotic behavior turned out to be a thick, figurative chore. Now he's brought us The Box, an adaptation of Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button", which attempts to analyze humanity's will when poised with a decision between anonymously killing for money and living out their days in financial turmoil. Though the atmosphere's thick and the '70s aesthetic pleasing, it's another overtly-complex picture from Kelly that's more disjointed than convincing.
We find ourselves dropped in 1976 Richmond, Virginia, awaking at 5:45 with the Lewis family -- NASA employee Arthur (James Marsden), teacher Norma (Cameron Diaz), and their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) -- as they stare down a box delivered at their front door. Opening it reveals a wood encasing with a glass dome, covering a bright red button that can't be accessed without a key. They stew over it, along with a card that claims a Mr. Steward will be arriving that afternoon at 5, and over the ramifications and rewards they'll receive upon pushing the button. What Mr. Steward (Frank Langella), a man whose face has been partially burnt away by way of lightning strike, has to offer is a sort of "indecent" proposal; if they press the button, they'll receive one-million dollars in tax-free cash, but pressing the button will cause somebody, somewhere, to die. With their child's tuition bills, Norma's impending surgery, and Arthur's waning position at NASA in mind, their choice is difficult.
Director Kelly certainly knows how to build a mood, but his character portrayals haven't developed well over the years. The Box is no exception. With a hazy visual look and strategic blasts of '70s flare, he's built a classy artistic blend that both conveys the time period and remains stylish to modern standards, but it's a backdrop, however, to a slate of clunky character introductions and stilted drama, which isn't something that this brainy mystery needs at its launch. When Norma, stiffly played with a thick accent by Diaz, readily reveals her deformed foot to her entire class at the demands of a brooding student with an evil grin, it's pretty clear that realism's being tossed aside for the benefit of rushed storytelling. Similar wooden sequences occur, including Arthur's explanation of Norma's deformity, that do a lot more telling than showing. The script covers a lot of ground in a very short time period, and the result is swift, crowded character exposition that sloppily cranks us forward to the meat of the matter.
That's a byproduct of watching one of Kelly's creations, though, because his characters are mostly pawns moving around a compelling science-fiction brainstorm. And, indeed, The Box has an intriguing premise under its simple beginning, boiling around whether Arthur and Norma will push the button or not, and the moral repercussions behind their decision. Thus starts our trip down the rabbit hole -- growing labyrinthine as the mystery behind Mr. Arnold intensifies and the metaphysics that Kelly adores take hold -- and forward into brain-numbing concentration. Here's the problem: just like Southland Tales, Kelly doesn't know how to streamline the spout of dense imagery pouring from his brain, which make the building blocks in the mystery meaningful yet unpleasantly chaotic. He tosses in a wide berth of meditation on Mr. Arnold's pervasive existence, why he's asking people to push the button, and the fabric of humanity's greed, but it's so malformed and slipshod that it weakens its already muddy meaningfulness.
The Box fills its morality bookends with an endless twinge of science-fiction pretense, complete with half-baked ideas about mind control and other-worldly influence. Arthur powers a cat and mouse detective chase, with a surprisingly decent turn from James Marsden, which leads to more and more revelations about how deep -- and dangerous -- this button-pushing experiment goes. As with Kelly's other works, things are left to interpretation as to their meaning; as we're peering through a slew of interconnecting photographs, resource manuals and listening in on phone conversations, all while watching lots of people get bloody noses, the picture turns into a thunderstorm of activity that I would've really preferred if it had passed over. That's not a sleight on Kelly's concepts, which are very clever, but more on the erratic, cyclical way in which the film's activity uncontrollably bubbles around them.
With ethical compasses spiraling wildly throughout its nearly two-hour drudge through allegory, and with more of the watery, theoretical CG-hoopla that empowers Donnie Darko's theorems, The Box arrives at a second moral dilemma in the 11th hour -- and the resolution to the whole she-bang, though it makes relative sense, troubles by being tediously questionable within its backed-in-a-corner frustration. With brains completely shut off and eyes purely watching for the mysteries to unfold, it's not a bad trick, but looking deep into Arthur and Norma's decisions and the structure of it all will cause a massive, quaking headache. It begs the question: was all that gear-churning in our minds really worth it? Ultimately, the answer's no, essentially bringing us to the conjecture that we wish Arthur and Norma would've just made the opposite decision at the start. For their sakes, and ours.
Video and Audio:
Warner Bros. bring The Box to the high-definition spectrum in a 2.35:1, 1080p VC-1 encode that matches the eerie, warm '70s imagery that Richard Kelly was gunning for with his picture. Several moments showcase rather stark detail presentation, such as the crispness and depth in Christmas ornamentation and the slick lines rendered in the Lewis' household. Colors are bold and radiant when they need to be and contrast levels are stellar, rendering inviting flesh tones and gripping lighting effects throughout. However, some sequences do smear a bit in regards to detail, luring a bit of the depth away from the image, and most of the CG sequences stand apart from the actual image -- more of the detail put into Langella's facial distortio. In all, it's an attractive Blu-ray presentation that's pleasing to the eye.
Audio for the Box arrives in a DTS HD Master Audio track, one with plenty of activity and a grasp of musicality. Easily one of the most emotive forces in Kelly's film is the soundtrack, orchestrated by Arcade Fire, which is a sublimely interactive score. The crescendos and delicate instrumental effects craft a spooky mood to the lion's share of the film, aggressively attacking the rear channels. Also pouring from the rears are several sound effects, such as rushing "water". Dialogue remains clear, if a bit on the lanky side, and the activity to the LFE channel is appropriately punchy for the film's purposes -- again, mostly getting a workout through mid-level, throaty musical notes. French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also available, while subtitles in English, French and Spanish adorn the picture.
Commentary with Richard Kelly:
Kelly delivers mostly good commentary tracks, and The Box doesn't disappoint. He stays fairly scene-specific while giving us tidbits about how the film connects to his family's history and such, while also diving into the thematic construction around each scene -- emphasizing Norma's limp in different emotional states, the differences in Arthur's disposition before and after the couple's decision about the box, etc. He gets into a rhythm of regurgitating thematic obviousness in a few patches, but most of the content he offers is insightful.
The Box: Grounded in Reality (10:42, HD):
Kelly continues his fervor for filmmaking in this featurette, reflecting more on the Donnie Darko director's fascination with Richard Matheson's story and how he rooted it in real-life inspiration. He delves into how he used his parents as a framework for Arthur and Norma, including interviews with each that give the bit some weight.
Richard Matheson: In His Own Words (4:53, HD):
Though short, this tidbit about sci-fi author Richard Matheson, which includes some interview time with him as he reflects on his history as a writer -- chronicling when he write his first novel, which story he sold first, and what stuff he pieced together for television.
Also available are a slate of Visual Effects Revealed (3:55, HD) sequences that show how the array of computer-generated imagery progressed, as well as some Music Video Prequels (9:14, HD)that are, for the most part, mostly showcases for the music and not revelatory for the storyline. Disc 2 contains the DVD/Digital Copy, with which the DVD doesn't contain any of the special features found on the Blu-ray.
Richard Kelly's films have always been worth a watch, if simply to have your brain challenged, and The Box is no exception. His realization of this adaptation of Richard Matheson's stort story doesn't gel in the ways that it needs, instead flailing its conceptualization around wildly without enough of a grasp on narrative rationality or cohesiveness with its themes. Still, the prospects of its moral challenges alone -- and the director's impeccable ability to sketch out a time period -- make the experience one not completely wasted. Warner's Blu-ray looks and sounds rather good, while offering a few decent special features that include a director's commentary and an interview with Matheson, which make this one an engaging Rental.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site