A taut thriller fricasseed in a goopy mélange of metaphysical pretension and morality, The Box is yet another fascinating failure from the tweaked-out mind of Richard Kelly. Having crafted the cult brainteaser of the decade with Donnie Darko, Kelly took his sweet time making Southland Tales, a preposterous, overblown sci-fi time-travel comedy mess that was an outright disaster at the box office. After such convoluted pictures, The Box is, in many ways, his most accessible work, but Kelly is so quirky that his attempt to make something commercial comes out like a meandering, M. Night Shyamalan-styled head-scratcher.
It starts with a pretty elegant setup: A mostly happy young couple receives a package on the porch early one morning; inside is a small black box with a glass dome, which holds a large red button. That afternoon, a creepy older gentleman with severe facial burns (Frank Langella) turns up at their door with a proposition: If they press the button in the next 24 hours two things will happen; they will receive $1,000,000 in cash, and somebody they don't know will die.
In the wake of their choice, weird things start happening. They get followed by zombie-like people, a woman is murdered, and everyone starts getting mysterious nosebleeds. It's all part of a larger riddle, a tangled nest of ominous connections involving a double-super-secret black ops NSA program, the NASA Viking Mars missions, lightning strikes, mind control and John-Paul Sartre.
It's kind of fun to get lost in that conspiratorial labyrinth for a while, until it becomes abundantly clear that Kelly hasn't figured out where the exits are himself. He has absolutely no idea how to end a movie, and he's so in love with the arcane mystery that he can't bring himself to tie up loose ends in any sort of satisfying way.
The film is based on a short story called "Button Button," by Richard Matheson, who wrote many of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. The problem is that those little nuggets of creepiness work very well in half-hour bursts, but the wheels start to come off at feature length. And when you cast two of the most perfectly plastic actors around in Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, they struggle on the outer reaches of their mutual talent. Conversely, the effortless old pro Frank Langella adds menace and gravity to scenes that seem ready to float off to Cloud Cuckoo Land at any moment.
Kelly does offer a meticulous re-creation of Gerry Ford's America, from the polyester pants to the canned sitcom laughter of What's Happening!! on the boob tube, and a hint of post-Watergate paranoia. For all it's seriousness, The Box manages to reach the breaking point where tension becomes nervous giggles, and never really puts the lid back on.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.