In the 1970s (just as NASA is getting on its feet), a married couple is confronted by a man standing at their doorstep, carrying an unassuming wooden box. In the box is a button. If they push the button they will receive one million dollars, and somewhere, someone that they do not know will die.
While rather venturous in substance, The Box has this viewer’s vote for most befuddling film of 2009. This may be attributed to both complexity of plot (40 minutes in and I felt like I was taking crazy pills) and sheer disjoint. Moral dilemmas abound in this semi-sci-fi thriller. The audience is confronted time and time again with unthinkable decisions, nigh impossible for a moral agent to make. They would tear at the heart of anyone who tried.
Therein lies the key problem with this film: the moral dilemmas projected on the audience do not tear at their hearts. In fact, they barely yank the heartstrings. This is due almost entirely to poor presentation. The issues are there, but the audience does not care about them. They are too dully and too artificially injected into the story to be of any intrigue to the viewer.
2008’s The Dark Knight couldn’t have featured a premise less inclined to waxing philosophical. At its most basic level, a clown was fighting a man dressed like a bat. But somehow, what director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan ultimately produced was a film so complex and so laden with philosophical quandaries as to render it worthy of Oscar recognition. I’ll admit, however, that they had loads of CGI and special effects to work with, in addition to a slightly bigger budget.
All that aside, there is one gem amidst the muddled mess that is The Box: Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon). Langella is absolutely phenomenal as the mysterious stranger who arrives with the ghastly proposal. Unfortunately the same high praise cannot be offered to Langella’s co-stars, all of whom come off as wooden and heavily scripted. Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary) manages to produce a fairly sympathetic protagonist, but her southern accent in the film detracts – I’ll never understand why filmmakers employ this needless countrified brogue (I’m not averse to southern cadence, just non-southern actors using it, as so few of them can credibly pull it off.) James Marsden (X-Men) cannot even fall upon this excuse.
I will concede two points in favor of this film. One is Langella, who is truly Oscar-worthy good. The other is the film’s faithfulness to its origins: a short story titled “Button, Button,” written by Richard Matheson for the classic 1960s series The Twilight Zone. I was not even aware of the origins of The Box until after having viewed it, and yet the entire time I felt like I was watching one great big Twilight Zone episode. Unfortunately, the concise storytelling so memorable from the 1960s sci-fi series appears wholly lost to director/screenwriter Richard Kelly.
I admit it. I didn’t get some of this film. In fact, I didn’t get a lot of it. But in all good conscience (indeed, on a moral basis) I cannot advise seeing this muddled, disjointed piece of cinema.