Richard Kelly tries to direct a mainstream movie in The Box.

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Nov. 6 2009 10:49 AM

I Can Do Normal, Really

Richard Kelly tries to direct a mainstream movie in The Box.

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The Box. Click image to expand.
The Box

The director Richard Kelly recently told the New York Times that he hopes his new thriller, The Box (Warner Brothers), will prove to Hollywood that he can make a successful mainstream movie. He has a lot of proving to do. Despite the cult status enjoyed by his 2001 debut, Donnie Darko, his sophomore effort, the thoroughly wacko Southland Tales, starring Justin Timberlake and Dwayne Johnson, took in just $275,000 in domestic receipts. Give me Timberlake and The Rock for a day and I could make twice that by opening a kissing booth in Times Square.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

I can't help but root for Kelly, though. His movies are unapologetically ragged, but they can also be wonderfully strange, and they're always ambitious. He deserves a bigger audience, and if he could tone down the weirdness a notch and make a concession or two to narrative coherence, maybe he'd find one. Which is why I had high hopes for The Box. A simple premise and an avowed intent to make a crowd-pleaser—this could have been the Kelly picture I'd been waiting for. Alas, Kelly just can't seem to keep his imaginative id at bay. The Box plays like "The Pardoner's Tale" as retold by the conspiracy theorist haunting your neighborhood Radio Shack.

The movie opens in winter 1976. Arthur and Norma Lewis, a couple living with their young son in suburban Richmond, Va., wake one morning to find a parcel on their doorstep. Inside is a strange contraption, a wooden box with a single red button on top. (If you can picture the buzzers from Richard Dawson-era Family Feud, you're pretty much there.) Also enclosed is an elegant calling card from one Arlington Steward, who promises to pay a visit to the Lewis residence that evening. Steward (Frank Langella, enjoying himself) arrives as promised, and Norma (Cameron Diaz) cordially invites him in, unfazed by the potentially troubling fact that he's a total stranger with a horrific scar where his left cheek should be. Chalk it up to Southern hospitality.

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Comfortably ensconced in the Lewis kitchen—with its garish beige wallpaper simultaneously boding ill and accurately reflecting period taste—Steward explains the situation. If Arthur and Norma push the button on the gadget, they will receive a one-time payment of $1 million. "Tax free," he adds. Unfortunately, in order for his offer to qualify for the IRS's philosophical conundrum exemption, Steward must include a catch: hitting the button will also result in the immediate death of a stranger.

Tough call! No one likes to rub out a fellow citizen if they can help it, but $1 million was still a lot of money back then. Plus, it's been a rough week for the Lewis household. Arthur (James Marsden), a scientist at NASA, has just had his application to the astronaut training program rejected. Norma, who teaches literature at their son's private school, has learned that the administration is discontinuing the faculty discount on tuition next semester. If they don'tpush the button, young Walter might have to attend public school. Arthur would have to trade in his new Corvette for something more sensible, like a Pinto. What's an ethical person to do?

If you don't want to know whether Arthur and Norma push the button, you should stop reading here. But really—would there be much of a movie if they didn't push it? The supposed ethical dilemma—borrowed from a short story by the fantasy writer Richard Matheson—isn't where the fun is located in this movie anyway. The most enjoyable stretch of The Box is the half-hour or so after the Lewises opt for the cash. Moments after they push the button, Steward again darkens their door, this time bearing a briefcase with the promised $1 million. Questions that may already have suggested themselves to you begin occurring to the Lewises: Did someone really die when they pushed the button? Who is Steward, and who sent him to their home with this terrible proposition? The government? The devil? Publishers Clearing House?

Kelly is at his best when portraying the Lewises creeping sense of dread as they realize what they've gotten themselves into. Suddenly, bus boys are giving them knowing glances. Valet parking attendants scrawl allusions to Sartre's No Exit in the snow on the windshield of the 'Vette. The baby sitter ( Community's Gillian Jacobs) isn't who she says she is. Kelly knows how to get a wooden performance out of his actors, but at least in the case of these spooky service employees, the effect is seriously unsettling. There's also a very frightening sequence in the Richmond Public Library (played ably by the Boston Public Library), in which Arthur is pursued by Steward's slack-jawed henchmen as he desperately tries to remember how the Dewey Decimal System works.

Sadly, the closer Arthur and Norma get to unraveling who Steward is and what fate they've sealed for themselves by pushing the button, the less satisfying The Box becomes. "Whatever happens to you from now on will have greater ramifications than you can possibly fathom," intones a shadowy NASA middle-manager a little more than halfway through the movie. He happens to be talking to Arthur, but he might as well be addressing the audience. What began as a simple morality tale about the corrupting power of greed becomes in Kelly's hands a convoluted narrative free-for-all involving the NSA, the Viking 1 Mars landing, Arthur C. Clarke's second law, and something called the "altruism coefficient." Oh, and a prosthetic foot.

I'm concerned that Kelly does not have a blockbuster on his hands here. But watching The Box, I had a thought: What if someone were to ask Kelly to develop a television series? Imagine if you tried to stuff all the science fiction, philosophical musings, and plot twists of a season of Lost into two hours—you'd have something like The Box. Maybe all Kelly needs is more space to let all his crazy ideas breathe. With a 13-episode run, he could push all the buttons he wanted, and no one would die laughing.

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