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.