If you forced me to pick the spiritual successor to Rod Serling, I think I’d have to go with the master of suburban weirdness, Richard Kelly. Even more so than David Lynch and David Cronenberg, he’s just the master of that sort of mystical weirdness that was the hallmark of so many good Twilight Zone episodes. That’s why he was a natural to take on the challenge of The Box, based off a short story by the hottest 83-year-old writer on the planet, Richard Matheson.
The story, like so many of the Twilight Zone scripts, is a simple one. A couple, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), get a present from the mysterious, disfigured Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). It’s a box with a button. They have a choice. If they push the button, someone in the world they do not know will die, but they will get $1,000,000 in 1976 money. If they don’t push the button within 24 hours, the offer is void, the box is removed, and they can live their lives unmolested.
What would you do? Would you push the button and enjoy financial security for the rest of your days, or would you be unable to live with the death of an innocent person on your conscience? If they didn’t push the button, there wouldn’t be much of a movie, plus there are all sorts of familial money problems once Arthur gets rejected for the astronaut program. So the button is pushed and Arthur and Norma are plunged into a world of ultra-weird conspiracies involving seemingly supernatural entities, the National Security Agency, NASA, and lots of nosebleeds.
I’d try to explain the plot a little more, but I’m not really sure I understand it that well myself. It’s very confusing, and there’s a whole lot going on, as you’d expect from the combo of Matheson and Kelly, but the one thing you can say about The Box is that it stays riveting throughout most of the story. Just when you think things are starting to turn for the better for our heroes, Arlington pops up again to throw another wrinkle in the plot.
The movie moves very slowly at times, but it slides so smoothly from section to section and through the plot that you don’t really notice how slow it’s going, aside from a few moments that seemed to be a little long. It’s like being in a pressure cooker, with the plot slowly closing in on you and the tension slowly rising until you’re on the edge of your seat, waiting for the denouement.
That’s a credit to Kelly’s writing and direction, to be sure, but a lot of it has to do with surprisingly strong performances from the two leads. I don’t really consider either Cameron Diaz or James Marsden to be much in terms of acting ability, but aside from Diaz’s accent, the two of them are more than able to hold their own while sharing screen time with the brilliant Frank Langella, and that’s not easy to do. Marsden, in particular, has some tough to handle moments that he negotiates with aplomb, and given the preposterous nature of the script, his performance is what saves some of the more difficult to handle elements.
I can’t really give the film a perfect rating as it is a little long at 115 minutes and there are moments that could stand a trimming, but the real reason I can’t rate it perfectly is that I need to see it again. And possibly a third time. It’s one of those movies that I can tell I’m going to be watching and chewing on for months after the DVD comes out, kind of like I did with The Usual Suspects. There’s so much going on and so many little connections that I guarantee I missed more than a few things about the grand conspiracy.
This is a very rich, very dense movie, and I love Richard Kelly’s intricate oddness. Even knowing how things work out, I know there are a lot of subtle things going on that I’ve missed. I love a good conspiracy movie anyway, and this is what the X-Files movies wish they could have been. I’m anxious to get my hands on the DVD.