2009 | Director: Richard Kelly | Writers: Richard Kelly (screenplay) and Richard Matheson (short story)
Richard Matheson’s famed short story “Button, Button” is short and sharp, a freaky fable that ends up being as much about the horror of semantics as it is about any sci-fi scares. It’s understandable, then, that any film adaptation of the Hemingway-like work would need much expansion; it’s just strange that “Donnie Darko” director Richard Kelly, most recently found at the helm of the sprawling disaster “Southland Tales,” not only penned a short-enough script to get “The Box” made, but based the film more on the 1980’s episode of “The Twilight Zone” than Matheson’s slight work. What’s not strange is that Kelly’s movie goes off the rails in a big way while still managing to unnerve and provoke thought.
Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are Norma and Arthur, a couple of 1970s Virginians, who, despite working as a teacher and as a NASA engineer, respectively, still live paycheck to paycheck with their son Walter, who, we find early on, is about to lose his scholarship to the private school he attends. Norma awakens one day to find a box with a sealed button sitting at their doorstep, along with a curious note guaranteeing details that afternoon. When its promised owner, the disfigured and frightening Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, “Lolita”), arrives later, he gives her an offer she may or may not be able to refuse: one push of the button will net her family $1,000,000 cash, and will also result in the death of someone, somewhere in the world, who she does not know.
Kelly sticks to Matheson’s beats for the first act with great success, squeezing considerable tension out of mere conversations (aided by an effective score from members of the Arcade Fire) and weird people making strange faces, but “The Box” oddly becomes even more unsettling in the second half, when Kelly’s questionable love for sci-fi takes hold and the story zips off into Crazyland, while still hitting, somehow, every trite plot point in the book along the way. But–and this is a big “but“–the mess of genres and tones and philosophies (Sartre’s in particular) only serves to amplify the experience in equally skin-crawling and forehead-slapping ways, when it probably should have crashed it into a ditch.
How? The answer lies in ex-wunderkind Kelly, who, despite his decidedly insane ideas for dialogue and twists, is an utter whiz at imbuing every unwieldy line and every slow zoom with palpable foreboding and dread, to the point where those effects remain even after a cathartic, yet rather disappointing ending raises more questions than it answers. It’s not necessary to be a fan of either Matheson or Kelly to enjoy being creeped-out by “The Box,” but it helps to understand that you’re about to watch something very unlike any film you’ve seen before, even if you may not like where it takes you.
Rating: Three and a Half of Five Stars