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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Box (review)

Slay It Forward

It’s a box. A cardboard box. Frank Langella brings it to your door, and inside is the Pop-o-matic of Death, and you either push the big red button under the plastic dome, in which case someone you don’t know dies and you get a cool million in a briefcase, or you don’t, in which you don’t get a movie made about you. Resisting the Moral Dilemma? No movie for you!
Actually, I sorta don’t get those who are complaining about The Box for being morally repugnant, because it’s kind of a given with movies like this that there is an assumption that the audience will feel morally superior to the characters onscreen: Sheesh, of course I wouldn’t push the button, we’re all telling ourselves as we watch, not for a gillion bazillion dollars. That would be Wrong. Except we all do these things all the time. We don’t give money to the bum on the street, and he dies frozen to a manhole cover on the coldest night of the year. We vote for a government that denies foreign aid to anyone who hands out condoms, and a million AIDS-infected babies are born. Who cares? I mean, we should care, but we don’t, not in the aggregate. If we did care, we’d behave differently. But we mostly don’t care about people who aren’t standing right in front of us. It’s just sort of who we are.

But The Box isn’t about the large-scale, mindless inhumanity we all show one another by buying T-shirts made by children in sweatshops in Asia because they’re cheaper than the ones that aren’t. Except on a scale so grand that even the movie itself doesn’t know quite what to make of it. That’s a problem with The Box, no question about it. And yet the ambition of the movie makes it sort of intriguing, too, even if it fails — spectacularly — in the end. When I say that I can appreciate an ambitious failure more than I can a safe, comfortable success, this is the kind of movie I’m talking about. It fucks up, but its failures are those of reaching too far, not of being too terrified to even try. I’ll give writer-director Richard Kelly — he of Donnie Darko genius — for that. And I say that in full awareness that one’s reach exceeding one’s grasp is not enough to redeem a failure, because a similar reach/grasp ratio was in evidence with Kelly’s previous film, Southland Tales, and that was one of the worst films of that year even given Kelly’s laudable ambition.

So: There’s all this weirdly absorbing stuff going on as The Box opens. Why is it 1976 instead of today? What’s with the creepy student of Cameron Diaz’s (My Sister’s Keeper, Shrek the Third) — she teaches English at a private school in Virginia — who wants her to show off her naked foot in class? Why is the NSA interested in the Mars Viking lander project at which James Marsden (27 Dresses, Enchanted) works (he designed part of the camera the orbiter is using to take pictures of the planet)? Why would Frank Langella (The Tale of Despereaux, Frost/Nixon) target this apparently happy couple with his weird box-and-death-button experiment? If someone can make an offhand, not-related-to-the-death-button comment about how “one good turn deserves another,” then surely it’s all gonna be an object lesson in the contrary, right: press the death button, and one bad turn will deserve another?

Kelly based his script on a short story by legendary SF writer Richard Matheson, but where Matheson went is only the beginning here. There’s an appropriately old-fashioned 70s-cinema feel to the slow build here, as if this actually were a flick made in the 1970s instead of one made today and merely set back then. And it’s downright thrilling that, for a while during the midsection of the movie, it becomes impossible to foresee where it’s going: this is a deeply weird movie, and a totally unpredictable one, and that is a rare thing. It made me feel that chill I feel when I suspect I’m in the presence of greatness, even if, at the same time, it made me doubt it could pull it off to completion.

It can’t. Like many movies that start out so cleverly, The Box cannot sustain that momentum. The explanation for what is going on at once fails to make sense of all the questions that have been posed — why the box? is there a government conspiracy at work? is there a coverup of the discovery of life on Mars? WTF? — and fails to resolve its story in even a noncommittal, open-ended way. The strata of creepiness it has been laying down all the while were still enough to leave me with a gloom of lovely misery, but not enough to leave me feeling satisfied that this tale of weirdness and mystery was satisfied with itself.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • chuck

    So this is like the old Twilight Zone episode?

    After the couple press the button the man comes back to take the box. When the couple ask where the box is going, the man replies, “To someone you don’t even know”

  • CB

    Actually, I sorta don’t get those who are complaining about The Box for being morally repugnant, because it’s kind of a given with movies like this that there is an assumption that the audience will feel morally superior to the characters onscreen: Sheesh, of course I wouldn’t push the button, we’re all telling ourselves as we watch, not for a gillion bazillion dollars. That would be Wrong. Except we all do these things all the time.

    Sure, it’s easy to think that we’d make the morally correct choice when presented with the situation as a pure abstraction, and feel superior to anyone who would do otherwise. Even if we do heartless things all the time in real life, when presented in such a black-white fashion in a pure hypothetical, the choice is clear. And people who chose the opposite are “morally repugnant” and one would expect them to get their hypothetical comeuppance.

    The problem with turning this hypothetical moral conundrum into a real, actual one (as it is within the context of the movie) is that then the primary question is no longer “What is the moral choice? Will I make the moral choice?”

    Think about it. Some random dude drops a box off at your house, and tells you that you’ll get a million dollars if you push the button but also kill some stranger. Your first thought isn’t going to be “Omg, should I push the button?!” it’s going to be “Who the hell is this wacko, and why the eff should I believe that he’ll give me anything if I push the button?” I mean the guy basically states his intention to murder someone if you press the button, but you’re going to assume he’s all on the up-and-up, and that even if its true, assume that you aren’t simply going to be next in line for murder in his crazy scheme? Who just goes around handing out millions of dollars anyway?!

    I can’t tell from your review how this is handled (other than I think it is, after they push the button), but for some reason it really bothers me.

  • CB

    After the couple press the button the man comes back to take the box. When the couple ask where the box is going, the man replies, “To someone you don’t even know”

    Hehe. I guessed that was the twist, without even knowing about the old Twilight Zone episode. But I’m not sure it is, technically speaking.

  • After the couple press the button the man comes back to take the box. When the couple ask where the box is going, the man replies, “To someone you don’t even know”

    SPOILER

    For what it’s worth, the original Richard Matheson short story ended differently, but that sounds like a good ending too.

    For that matter, I can’t help but wonder what a modern-day filmmaker do with the Matheson short story “The Distributor.” In the story, a guy moves into a neighborhood, commits a lot of strange actions that only increase tensions between people already living there, and then…

    He moves.

    We don’t give money to the bum on the street, and he dies frozen to a manhole cover on the coldest night of the year. We vote for a government that denies foreign aid to anyone who hands out condoms, and a million AIDS-infected babies are born.

    Also, you can buy a dime-bag of marijuana and help subsidize yet more deaths in the Mexican drug war. You can buy an electronic device made in China and help subsidize Chinese prison labor….

    Then again you can go ahead and give money to the bum but there’s no guarantee that he won’t go out and buy an alcoholic beverage, drink it to the point that he passes out, and end up freezing to death anyway.

    Anyway, it’s hard enough to get people to take responsibility for actions that they’re directly responsible for. Start turning life into a game of “if only you had done this” and you can risk causing even more chaos by encouraging sins of omission…

  • Drave

    I found the undercurrents of misogyny more disturbing than the movie’s Moral Compass That Doesn’t Point North.

    [TOTAL SPOILERS BELOW, DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE!]

    The movie takes specific care to note that it is always the woman who pushes the button. The movie also seems to be implying that the life of a woman is less important than the eyes and ears of a child. If that’s what it is saying, I don’t agree with it. In fact, I can’t think of any possible interpretation of the events in the movie that I do agree with. By throwing in all this pseudo-Biblical junk about salvation and purgatory, I gather we are supposed to believe that Arthur made the right choice. Kelly clearly thinks he made the right choice, at any rate.

    Actually, my biggest problem with the movie is that so much of it is completely pointless. Sure, it’s interesting, and some of it is stunningly realized, but it all amounts to nothing. You could cut out everything having to do with the Employees, the library, the Arthur C. Clarke Aquatic Memorial Trinity, the wedding subplot, and anything that mentions Langley, the CIA, or the NSA, and, at the end of the day, you would still have told the exact same story. In fact, I think there is a really solid, meaty, half hour short film buried in over an hour of excess gristle.

    The very end of the movie, when Arthur makes his final decision, is pretty strong by itself, but it really can’t exist in the same movie with the rest of the bullshit Kelly threw in there. Arlington is the impartial judge of humanity, on behalf of the NSA, or the Aliens, or God, or whoever? Fine. He can telepathically control people with his mind with nosebleeds as a side effect? Okay, then why are all of his employees trying to influence Arthur one way or the other? Doesn’t that invalidate the data from his experiment? In fact, it could be argued that the only way he could time the trigger to be pulled at the exact same time the next button is pressed would be to exert his influence over either Arthur or the new test subjet. If that is the case, it invalidates the movie’s whole thesis. If it’s not the case, Kelly took a crass writing shortcut purely for the sake of having a clever editing moment that would make people go “Ohhhhhhhh!” Except everybody already went “Ohhhhhhhh!” as soon as the previous victim explained why he shot his wife.

    I call this one a decent effort by Kelly, but his pen is still writing checks his brain can’t cash. I have nothing against shooting for the moon, but maybe set the target a little bit lower first. See if you can hit the top of a tree before you move up to the moon.

  • Accounting Ninja

    But we mostly don’t care about people who aren’t standing right in front of us. It’s just sort of who we are.

    As explained, interestingly, in the Monkeysphere.

  • The movie takes specific care to note that it is always the woman who pushes the button. The movie also seems to be implying that the life of a woman is less important than the eyes and ears of a child. If that’s what it is saying, I don’t agree with it. In fact, I can’t think of any possible interpretation of the events in the movie that I do agree with. By throwing in all this pseudo-Biblical junk about salvation and purgatory, I gather we are supposed to believe that Arthur made the right choice. Kelly clearly thinks he made the right choice, at any rate.

    SPOILERS: At first I wondered if the woman pushing the button was not a bit misogynistic too, but I realized that Langella does something clever. First of all, Langella seems to have started with people he has some knowledge of, so you could suggest he knows where Cameron Diaz’s character works, not to mention his zombie-like mob has always been watching, and it was the 1970’s, so who knows how many women still stayed at home. But essentially, the setup is designed so that the woman is at home and the man is not. I think guys are generally quick to jump to the con-man conclusion, and there would be less likelihood that they would consider pushing the button, but he gets Diaz alone and intimidates her a little with his face. She mulls over it for a few hours before James Marsden gets home and then eventually Marsden slowly counts down the reasons it would be a con, which he probably just would have interrupted with had he been there when Langella first showed up. That’s my thought on it anyway.

    As for the ending, I felt when I was watching it that the characters made the wrong decision (leaving the kid blind and deaf would leave all three characters alive, and that was Langella’s initial point, to value human life and the survival of the species more than material things), but now I suppose I can’t see how the rest of the movie supports this theory.

  • I’m glad others have been mentioning the ‘women were always the ones to press the button’ bit. My girlfriend’s dislike of this movie turned to hatred when we saw the last woman press the button (three for three) and was sure that it was making an Adam and Eve comparison (the button as a red, shiny apple?)

    I found it hard to believe that a: Kelly intended to be so sexist and backward but at the same time b: it was just a coincidence.

    We were both awaiting your response to this fact, MJ, and I’m surprised it apparently didn’t rate a mention…

  • Kensai

    For that matter, I can’t help but wonder what a modern-day filmmaker do with the Matheson short story “The Distributor.” In the story, a guy moves into a neighborhood, commits a lot of strange actions that only increase tensions between people already living there, and then…

    What happens, it seems, it that many years later Steven King takes the idea and writes a book named “Needful Things” and then someone goes on to make a movie out of it with Max Von Sydow.

  • Drave

    Oh, man…I know how that goes… I’ll just be going along, minding my own business, having a day, and then somebody will go and make a movie out of it with Max Von Sydow. So annoying.

  • Daniel

    Hehe. I guessed that was the twist, without even knowing about the old Twilight Zone episode. But I’m not sure it is, technically speaking.

    Here’s a wikipedia link to the description of the 1986 Twilight Zone version, which was adapted from the Richard Matheson story.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Button,_Button_(The_Twilight_Zone)

    It’s been a long time since I watched the Zone episode, but I recall it being a cleaner, clearer adaptation.

  • What happens, it seems, it that many years later Steven King takes the idea and writes a book named “Needful Things” and then someone goes on to make a movie out of it with Max Von Sydow.

    D’oh! I actually read that book and I never made that connection.

    And here I was so proud of myself because I’ve detected references to Steinbeck’s East of Eden in The Stand and references to Matheson’s I Am Legend in Cell.

  • Bluejay
  • Kate

    Thank you! I have been trying to figure out the title/author of a certain short story I read YEARS ago that was so haunting to me….and I believe it was Matheson’s “The Distributor”!

    Seriously, thank you. I’m so happy, I’m going to run off and buy a copy.

  • MaryAnn

    Two things.

    About how the *Twilight Zone* episode ends: that’s basically the end of Act One here, and then it spins off in a new direction that Matheson never went in.

    About how it’s always the women pushing the button: I’ve had to give this some thought, because even while I was watching the movie, I found myself thinking, “This *should* bother me.” But it doesn’t, and that’s what I needed to think about: why?

    And I think it’s this. I think it is actually a sort of feminist statement that it’s the women who are able to push the button even in the face of the clear moral dilemma (the movie does go into the Diaz and Marsden characters debating what to do, though not in a preachy or obvious way). Not that a willingness to be a contract killer is feminist, of course. What’s feminist is the recognition that, quite often, it is the female head of a household who is the one making the hard, practical decisions: pay the rent? buy medicine? or buy groceries? It’s a bit of a generalization, but I do think it’s not an unfair one (as long as we’re just talking generalizations and not individuals, who will always run a full spectrum of experience): the man brings the dough home, and the woman figures out how to make it go round.

    Here, it’s the Diaz character who is confronted — at least initially — with the prospect of having to take her son out of the nice private school because her faculty discount is going to be taken away. The Marsden character gets bad news on the same day, but it’s that he didn’t get the slot in the astronaut program he was after, which would not have brought in more money (astronauts get paid ridiculously little) but is “only” about his own personal fulfillment. (I don’t mean to belittle personal fulfillment — of course it’s important. But we’re talking here about the practical things that keep a household running, like money. Also note: He’s the one driving an expensive sports car.) And there’s no sense that, were they to push the button and take the money, that they were going to go wild: Diaz talks about taking care of their child and their families.

    Which isn’t an answer to satisfy the moral dilemma, of course: You might steal a loaf of bread to feed your child, but would you kill? (Some people might say yes.) Is it really a terrible thing if you’re child were to attend public school over private? (Some people might say yes.) It’s an acknowledgment that there are often tough decisions to be made that involve weighing an immediate return for a vital reason — or a seemingly vital reason — over a potentially bad outcome in the long run. I think many poor women would recognize this dilemma: Do you give up a meal yourself so your child might eat even if that means your own health could suffer in the long run, and hence make all your children suffer down the road? Or do you eat and let your children go hungry, even if that might make better sense in the long run? (Please note that I’m not saying that that *does* make better sense, only that someone might think it would.)

    And within the context of the movie, nothing that I’m saying here is a criticism of the Marsden character, who clearly is loving and sensitive. But he’s got different things on his mind than his wife does.

  • I see your point, MaryAnn. The problem I had is that, for me, pressing the button was clearly the wrong thing to do – even purely in principle and if nothing happened (I never thought the premise was much of a moral quandary at all). Thus it seemed like three women making stupid mistakes when their husbands we smart enough not to.

    If the last button presser had simply been a man, then the film wouldn’t have left a nasty taste in my mouth. And it wouldn’t have made any difference to the overall narrative.

  • MaryAnn

    If the last button presser had simply been a man, then the film wouldn’t have left a nasty taste in my mouth. And it wouldn’t have made any difference to the overall narrative.

    But it would have made a difference if Kelly was making a point about who makes tough choices, and who doesn’t.

  • Thank you! I have been trying to figure out the title/author of a certain short story I read YEARS ago that was so haunting to me….and I believe it was Matheson’s “The Distributor”!

    Seriously, thank you. I’m so happy, I’m going to run off and buy a copy.

    You’re welcome, Kate. I’m glad to be of help.

  • Darrell Plank

    I thought there was just way too much implausible stuff. If I had gotten Langella at my door, one of two things would have happened – either the box goes straight to the garbage can or I would have pushed the button because the claim that somebody would somehow die is just so outrageously ridiculous. If God/NSA/Aliens really want to make a morality test, offer somebody a million dollars to take a gun and kill somebody – that’s a pure money vs morality question. You give them a silly looking wooden box and you have to take into large account how much they even believe your outlandish story. You could claim that we’ve got to accept this premise for the story to work, but there is a lot made out of whether it would actually do anything (the husband opens the box and says it will do nothing, etc.) so the movie itself impresses on us that these people really don’t necessarily believe that they’re doing anything at all by pressing the button which means that the belief factor is built into the movie – not a suspension of belief we’re expected to maintain.

    Another thing that really bothered me was the weird kid. He comes into the story, does a bunch of odd things and then the story is over. Who was he? Why was he doing those odd things? Nobody knows. Never explained. Many other loose ends like this made me less than happy with the movie. I often find in cases like this that some “deleted scene” on a DVD makes things clear, but the movie as released is just silent in this regard (as well as others).

    And finally, what kind of morality do the “employers” maintain to impose such a test on people? Actually, this could have been a meta-point in the movie and if so, I half withdraw my complaint, but the movie concentrates on the morality of people who are given the chance to press the button, when in fact, the people who are giving them the opportunity to press the button, ensuring that people die and blinding/deafening kids doesn’t seem to me to hold much moral authority to be judging others.

  • To Darrell:

    The hundred dollar bill that Langella leaves behind is a key part of the test. First of all, he shows Diaz the million, and he leaves one bill behind, which Marsden verifies as legitimate. Since one half of the equation is apparently true, that gives weight to the other half. And part of the idea is that you should act on instinct. Even if you don’t “buy” it, this stranger is still posing you with a question, and you should still react accordingly. Choosing not to believe is a choice as well, and just because you don’t believe it doesn’t mean you have to press the button just because you don’t believe.

    The weird kid element is confused by the fact that there seems to be a separation between the “zombies”. Some of them stare silently, but some of them, like the weird kid, the babysitter, the woman in the grocery store and the principal, they seem to still have free will. But the kid flashes Marsden the peace sign, which eventually prompts him to choose the second path in the water test. There isn’t really more to explain, the kid clearly knows the aliens are out there, and is sort of “in” with them, as a potential vessel for Langella to control.

    Lastly, the idea is that people choose to press the button, and it is a bad thing that the human race almost invariably chooses such. It’s just a choice; we don’t HAVE to press the button, they aren’t MAKING us press the button, but most of us ultimately choose to do so, given the option.

  • And finally, what kind of morality do the “employers” maintain to impose such a test on people?

    SPOILER

    The original short story implied that the “employers” were agents of the Devil, if not the Devil. And isn’t it the Devil who is generally seen in Western culture as being the most likely source of dubious temptations?

  • MaryAnn

    If God/NSA/Aliens really want to make a morality test, offer somebody a million dollars to take a gun and kill somebody – that’s a pure money vs morality question.

    No, that’s not at all the same thing. There’s a huge difference between these two questions: 1) Would you kill someone if you had to point a gun at them and pull the trigger? 2) Would you kill someone if you didn’t have to look them in the eye while doing it and it all happened far away to someone you don’t know?

    There are tremendous implications for philosophies of morality in how people answer those questions.

    You give them a silly looking wooden box and you have to take into large account how much they even believe your outlandish story.

    But that’s part of the test, too. Would you take a chance that your action might result in someone else’s death, even if the mechanism that causes it seems implausible?

    I’m not saying that the movie either did or didn’t answer these questions well, but that the premise as we specifically are presented it in the film does have value in itself that isn’t the same if it were otherwise.

  • Jolly

    There are tremendous implications for philosophies of morality in how people answer those questions.

    Not really. Moral philosophy generally addresses how we *should* answer these questions, rather than assessing how we actually do address them. This distinction should be obvious to someone writing about film from a feminist perspective.

  • CB

    There’s still an obvious distinction between the two questions. Maybe not for a “moral philosophy” which I take it you presume gives the same answer to both. But for the psychology involved, the difference is huge.

  • Boingo

    I gotta admit. The crowd of “dumpy” middle aged guys
    surprised me with consistency of “type.” Good job,
    casting.No doubt “extra flyers,” went out during
    some kind of hunting and fishing club BarBQ reunion.
    They’re my kind of down to earth folks,actually.

  • buckcc

    The “sexist” theory is pretty obvious. But men refuse to see it because they’d do the same in this situation – listen to the woman and agree with her. And a woman won’t see it, and actually get annoyed by it, because she is above all else a woman.
    But sexism is a delicate problem, women pour tons of sh*t over men, blaming them for everything but their monthly cycle and global warming. And men do not respond, do not defend themselves at all. Why? Do we feel guilt for smth? No, it’s just that we are affable, week, silly and tend to see the woman beside us as a pretty, tender, creature that we can forgive and accept almost everything from her. Here’s the most disturbing message of the movie that I see:
    1. Women are usually greedier, more cruel and irresponsible.
    2. A man always listens to the woman. Even when reason is OBVIOUSLY on his side.
    First, we should notice that they are not poor at all. He drives an expensive car, has a well-paid job. Is the faculty discount removal going to endanger their financial status? ABSOLUTELY NOT. BUT SHE IS WORRIED, UNHAPPY.
    Second, Diaz’s character is the one whos making the immoral and irresponsible decision. She persuades her husband. He think it is a joke, tells her to push it. She answers, “we must do it together”. IT IS HER DECISION BUT SHE CANT TAKE THE RESPONSIBILITY. He is telling it is going to lie on her conscience that someone is dead because of her. She is doing it anyway. Why? Your husband is rich, talented, handsome scientist? Is public school for the child such a problem? No. GREED, WOMEN’S SICK AMBITION, prevail. The button is pushed.
    Very important next scene, party, people. The man standing in front of a house, worried, thinking. The woman inside dancing, with a smile on her face. NO FEELING OF GUILT. Gets worried after a phone call when she understands THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES FOR YOUR ACTIONS.
    In response to a woman’s opinion above. This is not a “tough” decision. Easy money, one push, smb far away dies. “Tough” decision is when you do smth knowing and ready to accept the consequences.
    This is an irresponsible and stupid decision. I dont want to comment on MerryAnn’s other entirely cr***y arguments, her damaged way of thinking just confirms this theory.
    It is always the woman who pushes the button. Steward’s wife, driver’s wife, and final scene..again the woman. It is always the woman who makes the irresponsible, unreasonable decisions. And the man pays for them.
    Of course in real life it is not “always” but is “most of the time”.

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