Eight years ago, Donnie Darko marked first-time writer/director Richard Kelly as a talent to watch. Two features later, whatever goodwill Kelly earned with audiences is all but erased.
His latest film, The Box, follows on the heels of the bloated miscalculation that was Southland Tales. That movie seemed like a perfect example of a studio throwing too much money and freedom at a talented filmmaker that had not learnt restraint. Now with The Box it seems less likely that Southland Tales was merely a case of sophomore slump. Kelly is looking more and more like a one-hit wonder.
The Box is based on a short story by Richard Matheson, the author of the oft-filmed I Am Legend. The premise of a couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) being visited by a stranger (Frank Langella) with a mysterious button and a tempting offer is pure Twilight Zone, so it should come as no surprise that the story was also adapted for an episode of the 1980s revival of the series.
Langella’s offer is $1 million to press the button. The catch is that someone whom the couple does not know will die. This is a fantastic setup that is wasted in an attempt to expand it to feature length. The Box does a reasonably good job creating a tense atmosphere around whether the button will be pressed, but once it is pressed, a simple morality tale becomes a would-be supernatural thriller. Those watery wormholes Kelly is so fond of make an appearance as do several bloody noses and it is all, naturally, connected.
Early on, Marsden and Diaz discuss whether they truly know their neighbours or even one another. This idea of what it means to actually know someone is the film’s most interesting idea and one that would’ve been worth exploring, but instead Kelly gives us the same watered down philosophy and scientific mumbo-jumbo that he presented in Donnie Darko and Southland Tales. He even name checks Sartre just to make it clear that his film is an existential journey exploring humanity’s supposed free will.
The film’s early tension is sustained for a while and mixed with a sense of paranoia and confusion, but it builds to nothing. Eventually, the audience sees through all of Kelly’s subterfuge and it is clear exactly where the film is going. It simply becomes a matter of sitting bored, waiting for the inevitable to occur.
The tedium that sinks in during the second half of the film is only amplified because everything is played on the same sombre note. Diaz and Marsden have both proved in the past that they can be energetic actors, but here they are simply asked to be serious and that’s what it feels like: actors trying to be serious, so much so that they lose the humanity of the characters.
Diaz does have one scene with Langella that is affecting. She is asked to explain what she first felt when she saw Langella’s facial scars. Her answer is unexpected and moving. The scene hints that the film could’ve gone in a different direction, but Kelly simply thrusts us into an increasingly (and unnecessarily) convoluted plot.
Donnie Darko was also a confusing film, but it was funny and it had something to say about adolescence and suburbia. All of Donnie Darko‘s cynical wit is missing from The Box. At least Southland Tales had a few worthy one-liners. The Box is humourless and self important. Alfred Hitchcock knew that thrillers didn’t have to be this dryly serious. Rod Sterling knew it too. Kelly should take a page from both their books. Make that several.