Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden,
Frank Langella, James Rebhorn
Director: Richard Kelly
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 116 Minutes
Release Date: February 23, 2010
“What do we wanna do, Norma?”
Richard Kelly is both a true cinematic visionary and a gifted storyteller. Though he’s evoked a David Lynch-ian feel in most of his work, he is simply one of a kind in terms of the stories he brings to the screen. Donnie Darko remains a masterful enigma of a film and I stand by my defense of the universally despised Southland Tales simply because in its own twisted way, it’s a real original.
The Box is Kelly’s third feature film and, quite honestly, might be his strongest offering to date. It’s not an altogether perfect film, but the minor flaws are completely outweighed by the many fantastic qualities. And like Kelly’s first two films, it challenges the mind and is not so easy to decipher.
This also marks Kelly’s first adaptation of previously written material. In this case, the source is the short story by Richard Matheson entitled “Button, Button”, which was also the basis for an episode of The Twilight Zone. Coincidentally, I don’t think any other film has done a more remarkable job of evoking the mood and feel of the classic television series and that includes Twilight Zone: The Movie.
This very moody feel kicks off right away during the opening sequence of the film. Norma Lewis (Diaz) and her husband, Arthur (Marsden), are awaken early one morning by an anonymous package delivery at their doorstep. They open it up to find a small eccentric device, containing nothing more than a red button guarded by a glass dome. Confused by it but not much concerned, they simply put it aside and treat the delivery as something of a light prank.
That is until Norma receives a house visit from a mysterious and hideously scarred man named Arlington Steward (Langella), who reveals himself to be the one who delivered the package, which is tied directly to an offer he has come to make. He hands over the key which will unlock the device and then presents the challenge of a lifetime. If the red button is pushed, two precise things will happen; they will receive a briefcase containing a million dollars cash, and that someone somewhere whom they don’t know will die.
Though Norma and Arthur are about as decent and moral as any married couple, recent financial woes cause them to think about taking part in something they would normally say no to. They have been living paycheck to paycheck for quite some time. And to make matters worse, Arthur has just been rejected on a promotion he was almost certainly guaranteed at his job at NASA.
So after a long and careful period of making the right decision, they give into their needs and push the button. Arlington arrives at their door almost instantly with the promised blood money. Not feeling right about what they’ve just done, Arthur rejects the offer. Arlington simply tells them, “I’m sorry, but the button has been pushed.”
From this point on, The Box escalates into what can only be described as the single most creepy mindbender in years. Sci-fi elements come into play right out of left field, just as they did in Donnie Darko, and as a result certain viewers may end up becoming a bit frustrated by the many unexplained occurrences. But if you’re like me and appreciate Richard Kelly’s ambitious approach towards sci-fi, you will eat up every bit of what he cooks up here.
But even beyond the stupendously eerie mood and atmosphere, which never lets up throughout the entire movie, The Box is also a fantastic period piece. The setting is 1976 Virginia, and Kelly captures every little detail of the period brilliantly, right down to the over-the-top interior wallpaper designs that plagued many suburban homes at the time. I wasn’t expecting this out of the movie, which is one of the many surprises it has up its sleeve.
It’s also a personal project for Kelly, as he retooled Matheson’s original story in order to have it take place during a pivotal point in his childhood. He also based the characters of Norma and Arthur on his real life parents. That personal touch, combined with his one of a kind vision (not to mention his love for The Twilight Zone), is what makes The Box quite the haunting gem it is.
This is an interesting looking feature. Though set in the late 70s, the movie appears to have been shot digitally. This results in a most stunning looking Blu-ray release. The detail in the color is simply magnificent and the glorious 70s setting, most notably the interior design of the Lewis home, shines tremendously in the 1080p. If there’s one flaw, it’s that the digital film stock does cause some unwanted smearing in the image, but it’s not overly-distracting at all.
Sound is a key element in plunging the viewer into this film’s particular moody atmosphere, and the DTS HD mix is nothing short of outstanding in the enhancing of that quality. I have yet to even make mention of the fantastic score to the film, which was composed by members of the rock group Arcade Fire. It’s about the most perfect music score of film of this type could ever deliver, and really delivers that Twilight Zone-esque feel. Numerous sequences involving eerie suspense and special effects also pay off wonderfully well, as does dialogue delivery.
Included is a commentary with Richard Kelly, which may help for those who find themselves lost on certain plot details. Also featured are three featurettes; “The Box: Grounded in Reality”, “Visual Effects Revealed” and “Richard Matheson: In His Own Words”. Lastly, there are three interestingly conceived music video prequels that offer hints to elements that will eventually play out in the movie.
The Box may be a bit difficult for most to decipher, but if you’re a true die hard sci-fi fan who doesn’t mind working the old brain, then you’re bound to be blown away by what Richard Kelly has packaged here.