Release Date: November 6, 2009
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images)
Genre: Horror/Suspense, Thriller
Run Time: 115 min.
Director: Richard Kelly
Actors: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs
Mysterious, intriguing and involving for about 40 minutes, The Box, from director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales), adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes), turns sillier and sillier as it attempts to explain every mystery and answer every question about its premise. That's a shame, because the film offers moral lessons that, while obvious, make it more thoughtful and meaningful than 90 percent of the movies that get made today. If only Kelly, who adapted Matheson's story for the screen, knew when to quit.
James Marsden and Cameron Diaz star as married couple Arthur and Norma Lewis, who, in 1976, receive an unexpected gift one night at their Virginia home: a box, with a big red button encased in glass. A disfigured visitor, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), arrives on their doorstep soon thereafter to explain the box and to make them an offer: If they unlock the glass cover and press the red button, someone they do not know will die, but the couple will receive $1 million. They have 24 hours to decide whether or not to take the offer.
The Lewises, strapped for money, get past their initial revulsion and convince themselves that they can live with the guilt of causing the death of someone they've never met, as long as the monetary reward relieves the fiscal burdens in their lives. Once their decision is made and the button is pressed, the movie begins to unlock the secrets at the core of its story.
The morality of their decision is enough to give the story weight, but Kelly adds in numerous distractions from the story's main dilemma. A NASA conspiracy, the possibility of life on Mars, the CIA, lightning strikes and ominous references to Steward's "employers" and "employees" clutter the simple core story without adding any complexity—just lots of left turns and dead ends. Steward enlists all manner of men and women—including the Lewises' babysitter—to do his bidding and to draw the net tighter around the Lewises. But the omnipresent villains, intended to be frightening, are robotic and vacant-eyed. Watching them, viewers might be reminded of the much-mocked M. Night Shyamalan film The Happening, which was far superior in creating an eerie mood on the way to explaining its rather silly mystery.
Similar to The Happening, The Box has at its core a marital relationship that undergoes a trial. Diaz is quite good as the wife (her Southern accent is a bit much), but Marsden, who carries more of the story's weight as the narrative unfolds, is undistinguished as Arthur. Langella, dignified and powerful, upstages the other actors, as Steward forces them to face their worst instincts and exposes them for who they really are.
The Box is loaded with religious language—"There's only one person who can save you now," "There is only one path to salvation," "Can I be forgiven?" "You gave me a glimpse of the afterlife"—but the "box" in which the characters are forced to operate has a simple, ugly end. So much for salvation and forgiveness.
The film's key imperative—"listen to your conscience; do what it tells you"—is a simple, profound command, but once the Lewises violate their consciences, their subsequent choices are determined for them and flow from the consequences of their fatal choice. Our sins will find us out (Numbers 32:23), so there is an element of truth in The Box. But poor choices are not a trap for believers who trust in God. "He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." (Psalms 103:9-12)
So often, stories that distort biblical truth are crafty, subtle and effective, so it's reassuring that The Box is ineffective, increasingly awkward as it unspools and ultimately inconsequential. By the time the film reaches its morbid, graceless conclusion, viewers will be so put off by the way the story works itself out—or bored by the plot's red herrings—that they won't much care about the characters or themes. The lingering questions in their minds will have less to do with the story than with why actors of the caliber of Langella, Marsden and Diaz signed on to the project.
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- Language/Profanity: "Oh God," "God knows," Discussion of a "slut who killed her baby"; "Jesus."
- Smoking/Drinking/Drugs: A 9-1-1 operator and NASA executive are shown smoking on the job; a joke about spiking a punchbowl; a woman holds a drinking glass while dancing; a man drinks at a bar; a man says he needs a drink and heads to the bar; a man drinks champagne.
- Sex/Nudity: None, but a married couple is shown in bed, being awakened by a knock at their door, and again later, having a conversation; a husband jokes about the possibility that his wife has a secret lover; a farewell kiss.
- Violence/Crime: A teacher shows her disfigured foot to several students; a couple is told that if they push a red button in a box, someone they don't know will die, and they will receive $1 million; a shooting victim is shown dead on the floor, but no blood is seen until later in photos of the victim, which show the blood in black-and-white images; multiple nosebleeds; a man kidnaps another man at gunpoint and confesses to killing his wife because he had been forced to kill either her or their daughter; a boy and woman are kidnapped; a car accident; a woman asks to kill herself; a fatal shooting.
- Religion: Norma teaches a class in which she discusses Jean-Paul Sartre's ideas about hell; a man is told to do what his conscience tells him to do; a man is given a choice of three gateways and told that only one leads to salvation, while the other two lead to eternal damnation; a man who was struck by lightning says he is "in touch" with those who "control the lightning," and is said to have come back from the dead with special powers; TV is said to be a "box at home" that erodes the soul; a discussion of sacrificing for the greater good of society; a man believes he has been given a vision of the afterlife and describes it as "a warm embrace, a place where the sidewalk ends, where despair is no longer governor of the human heart"; a woman asks if she can be forgiven for what she's done and a man answers that he doesn't know, then quotes Sartre: "Free is not free. The choice is ours"; speculation that a man is living in purgatory.