By Don Simpson | November 19, 2009
Director: Richard Kelly
Writer(s): (short story “Button, Button”) Richard Matheson, (screenplay) Richard Kelly
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella
The Box begins with a CIA internal memo being typed out onscreen concerning a man named Arlington Steward who has suffered severe burn wounds. Next thing we know, it is 1976 and we find ourselves in Richmond, Virginia as Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) are awoken (at 5:45 am) by their doorbell. Norma notices a mysterious black sedan pulling away and she discovers a non-descript box wrapped in brown paper on their front step. Norma and Arthur open the box, it contains: a wooden box with a button protected by a glass dome, a key, and a note reading something along the lines of “Mr. Steward will come at 5:00 pm.”
Later in the morning, their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) leaves for school. Arthur drives away in his silver Corvette to go to work at NASA – Arthur is an aspiring astronaut, and he currently works in optics (he helped design the camera used on the Viking Mars probe). Norma also goes to work – an elite private school where she is discussing Sartre’s “No Exit” (more specifically Sartre’s vision of hell) with her students. A long-haired student with an eery gaze remarks on Norma’s apparent limp, prompting Norma to reveal her disfigured right foot which is missing all but its pinky toe.
Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) appears at their house promptly at 5:00 pm. Arthur is still at work, so Norma invites the facially disfigured Mr. Steward inside. Mr. Steward offers Norma one million dollars if she or Arthur presses the button on the box – the catch being that someone they do not know will die.
When Arthur arrives home, Norma explains the deal to him. They debate the issue. Arthur is very skeptical – he even opens up the underside of the box which reveals nothing is connected to the button. How would Mr. Steward know if they did or didn’t press the button? While thinking it over, they attend a theatrical production of “No Exit”…maybe Sartre will provide them with an answer?
Norma and Arthur are on a very tight budget, and Norma might have to cancel her foot surgery…so what the hell?! Norma decides to press the button. (At which time, a 9-1-1 operator receives a call – someone has been shot. The police find a woman shot at close range through the heart without a struggle and a little girl locked in the bathroom upstairs.)
Mr. Steward returns to the Lewis’ home and presents Norma and Arthur with the one million dollars. As Mr. Steward is leaving he informs Norma and Arthur that whoever receives the box with the button next will surely not know them (which Norma and Arthur interpret as: if the next people press the button, one of them may die). Arthur tries to return the one million dollars, but the deal has already been finalized and Mr. Steward drives off.
From that point on, things get strange: there are two other direct references to Sartre’s “No Exit” (as well as several more discreet references – such as the two valets); both Norma and Arthur are given multiple obtuse and philosophical messages to help them solve whatever mystery they are attempting to solve; there are a lot of nosebleeds; a multitude of people in Richmond appear to be under a trance; there appears to be a wormhole in Mr. Steward’s office; the NSA is taking control of parts of NASA research and development; Mr. Steward is working with the NSA but he works for an unrevealed higher power (“those who control the lightning”); there are three “gateways” in a library – two of which lead to eternal damnation, one to salvation; there is another “gateway” in a pool at a roadside motel; several people flash the peace sign.
Mr. Steward’s mysterious employers are basically testing the human race to see if they are worth keeping. The hope is that the humans will make the decision that is neither selfish nor greedy – in other words, they should not press the button. The problem is, like Norma, most humans are selfish and greedy so they just keep pressing that button.
When all is said and done, Arthur and Norma return home and find Mr. Steward in their kitchen. They face one final test. Either: Arthur and Norma can keep the million dollars and their son Walter will suffer for the rest of his life; or Norma must die (and the million dollars will be placed in a high interest bank account for Walter). As the Lewis’ contemplate their next course of action, we see another couple preparing to press the button.
Writer-director Richard Kelly adapted his script from a 1970 short story “Button, Button” written by Richard Matheson and originally published in Playboy magazine (Matheson’s short story was also adapted into an episode of the Twilight Zone in the 1980s). Southland Tales proved that Kelly was willing to take significant risks (unfortunately, in most critics’ eyes – he failed). Donnie Darko has a rich and complex philosophical sub-text within a fairly coherent narrative; but with Southland Tales, Kelly did away with any resemblence of a coherent narrative in order to present purely philosophical concepts. The basic plot of The Box is relatively simple, as is the message; but it’s the narrative structure that is equally perplexing and challenging. At the end of the film, there are stilll a ton of unresolved issues. Kelly brings so many seemingly meaningless plot points into the narrative, yet opts not to explain their purpose or delve into any detail. (He also did this with Southland Tales, but in that case at least the graffic novel prequel helped clarify some questions.)
Speaking of complex narratives with a lot of curveballs and unresolved issues, The Box bares an uncanny resemblence to David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Those are two of my favorite films by Lynch – I’m also one of the few people who really liked Kelly’s Southland Tales – I like challenging films, what can I say? And the The Box offers innumerable challenges. It’s also infinitely complex, scary, thought-provoking and I really like the moral of the tale. However, I was very dissappointed by Cameron Diaz’s performance; admittedly, I’m not a big fan of Cameron Diaz, but her southern accent in The Box drove me absolutely batty.
Maybe Kelly’s next film will be coherent, cohesive and complex…that is if he can find a producer and distributor after two commercial flops.