Monday, November 9, 2009

The Box

Although Richard Kelly's third movie The Box has been advertised as an edgy thriller, an attempt for the director to claim some mainstream cred after the lackluster response to his messy, ambitious (and sadly undervalued) Southland Tales, this film merely confirms that Kelly is incapable of making anything as neat and tidy as a conventional thriller. This is both to his credit and his detriment. The Box is a deeply strange and broken movie, seeped in Kelly's Lynchian influence, which is still almost wholly undigested. He skillfully apes the patterns of Lynchian dialogue, the off-kilter conversational rhythms and deadened, eerie silences, and like Lynch's movies, Kelly's seem to take place in some slightly out-of-whack suburban American netherworld. The Box is set in Kelly's alternate reality 1970s Richmond, Virginia, a sleepy satellite to the government NASA, CIA and NSA outlets at Langley and other Washington suburbs. Here, government bureaucrats speak in clipped, enigmatic tones, and scenes play out in the kind of strange in-between state where it's not clear if they're meant to be dramatic or ironic.

In this sitcom suburb, married couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) are living out a postcard suburban existence with their young son (Sam Oz Stone). He's a low-level NASA grunt who wants to be an astronaut, and she's an English teacher. Sure, they're struggling, but they're reasonably happy. Then their quiet life with its modest troubles is disrupted by the appearance of Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a former NASA scientist who lost half his face in a lightning strike and seems to have emerged from the experience mysteriously changed. Now he visits the houses of randomly selected couples, many of them NASA employees, and posits a moral dilemma for them. He gives them a plain wooden box with a big red button on top, and tells them that if they press the button, they will receive a million dollars in cash and someone they don't know will die. It is, quite obviously, a very basic moral quandary, the kind at the heart of many classic science fiction stories, or stuff like The Twilight Zone (which indeed once based an episode on the same Richard Matheson short story that Kelly takes as his source here). It is a moral test: will these ordinary, relatively happy people reveal their constant desire for more, their dissatisfaction with their seemingly contented existences? Moreover, as Arthur asks when wrestling with whether or not to push the button, what does it really mean to "know" another person; the film posits webs of unseen and unimagined connections between unrelated people.

That reference to science fiction isn't offhand, either. After a first half that treats this intriguing premise in a relatively straightforward way, the film increasingly goes off the rails, spiraling into absurdity and loony sci-fi pseudo-philosophy. Much like Kelly's breakthrough debut Donnie Darko, come to think of it. Kelly seems irresistibly drawn to these kinds of metaphysical loops and narrative disjunctions. As the film progresses, it turns from a straightforward moral thriller into something else entirely, and the more Kelly's script tries to explain what's going on here, the more confusing and ridiculous the film becomes. The second half of the film somehow both explains too much and too little, spelling out the ideas — like the fact that the box is a morality test — that should have been left between the lines, while also tangling the plot up in a convoluted muddle. The film is bursting with ideas, both visual and philosophical, and Kelly leaps from one thing to the next without ever quite settling into one mode. The film is at its best when it's simply building suspense and tossing off inspired bits of nonsense left and right, crafting creepy and mysterious images. Kelly builds the film on what initially seem like non sequiturs, like Norma's creepy student (Ian Kahn) who humiliates her in class with a sinister leer. Or the sporadic appearance of people suffering unexplained nosebleeds, which at first seems like just another bizarre Lynchian touch before Kelly folds it into his nutty plot as well. Or the snippet we glimpse of a rather unlikely school play: a performance of Sartre's No Exit, references to which recur throughout the film.

This plot is, as the film goes on, more and more just a series of weird metaphysical flourishes and absurd sequences, with Norma and Arthur going in circles as the weird occurrences pile up. Along the way, Kelly does come up with a number of striking images, like the sequences of Langella's earnestly unsettling Steward presiding over a massive wind tunnel that he's made his base of operations. Elsewhere, Arthur walks into a column of viscous jelly-like fluid and emerges floating above his wife in bed. These moments are best appreciated as outbursts of goofy surrealism, since trying to fit this all together into a coherent whole is headache-inducing and not especially satisfying.

Despite all this, Kelly undoubtedly has real affection for these characters. He shares his idol Lynch's knack for infusing what might've been cardboard archetypes — a chipper middle American working class family straight from sitcom TV — with unexpected emotional depth. There's real feeling in a shot where Arthur sits on the bed, casually placing a present behind him, as his wife dresses in the next room. The scene where he actually gives her this present — a handmade experimental prosthetic to ease the pain on her radiation-deformed foot — would have been maudlin and melodramatic coming from a director without Kelly's precisely calibrated balance between ironic distance and emotional engagement. Kelly manages to make this marriage feel simultaneously like an unreal dream, overblown and kitschy, and also a real relationship. This pays off in the stunning — and stunningly manipulative — finale, which is both blatant tearjerking and a harrowing denouement. As with so many aspects of this film, it's hard to know what to think about this ending, whether the aggravation of its very obvious manipulation is earned by the emotional connection between Norma and Arthur or not.

As a whole, The Box is an uneven and compromised third feature from Kelly, who continues to display a genuinely interesting sensibility without quite making a film that's satisfying or coherent from start to finish. He's still working through his Lynch obsession, and still struggling to get his ideas onto the screen intact. One senses that the film was so much clearer in Kelly's head than it is in practice. Ultimately, it's a failure — certainly a failure in terms of creating a potential box office blockbuster, if that was the aim — but it's an interesting, ambitious failure, and that at least counts for something.


J.D. said...

Good review. I have to say I am intrigued to see this film. I'm one of the few people (I think) who really enjoyed SOUTHLAND TALES for the muddled, post-modern mess that it was.

Good call on the influence of David Lynch on Kelly's work. I remember first watching DONNIE DARKO and felt that the way he shot some of the suburban street scenes felt like something out of BLUE VELVET.

Hokahey said...

The more I think about this film, the more I'm feeling it was a success for me as an enjoyable experience.

As for what I appreciate most about this film, you say it well yourself here -

"The film is at its best when it's simply building suspense and tossing off inspired bits of nonsense left and right, crafting creepy and mysterious images."

And here -

"He skillfully apes the patterns of Lynchian dialogue, the off-kilter conversational rhythms and deadened, eerie silences, and like Lynch's movies, Kelly's seem to take place in some slightly out-of-whack suburban American netherworld."

Your latter quotation also seems to describe a sort of 50s-B-sci-fi movie atmosphere I really enjoyed - which was greatly enhanced by the eerie musical score reminiscent of that genre and of Bernard Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock.

Also the "out-of-whack suburban American netherworld" is well said and an element I loved. Your observation here explains what I wondered about in my own post. What about the bizarre oval-pattern wallpaper in the Lewis's kitchen? That was so obviously prominent in many shots.

I like the mysteries here - where is this Arlington Steward from. Some say another dimension - though I was kind of convinced he was some sort of alien messenger.

Much to the befuddlement of other bloggers, I've been saying on their posts and on my post that I prefer The Box to Donnie Darko - and I would have to rewatch that movie before I could specifically explain why, but the biggest factor that I enjoyed about the former is that I felt like I was watching one of those old 50s sci-fi movies - not a classic but at least an interesting lesser endeavor.

Success or failure - I'm still thinking about this movie and a number of critically acclaimed films this year such as A Serious Man I found totally forgettable.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I like your comparison to Lynch. On At the Movies last night that seemed to bed the main parallel Scott was drawing with this film. He used words like "dreamy" and such, and I have to say that the way he described the looseness of the film kind of made me intrigued (it's one of the things I liked about Donnie Darko -- a wholly entertaining sci-fi experience without a wholly plausible or easily explained ending).

I'll have to check this out soon. Great review, Ed.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. I think I may actually have enjoyed it more than I conveyed, even. Kelly's a real fount of ideas, and that's what I appreciate about him. At his best, as in Southland Tales, he just indiscriminately smears the screen with ideas and images, pouring out, totally offhand. The kinds of things that other directors would patiently build entire movies around, Kelly simply spits out and lets hang, there and gone within a single scene. Another similarity with Lynch, that.

Hokahey makes a good comparison to 50s sci-fi; I think that's deliberate. The film evokes that kind of older era. It's set in the 70s for some reason, so it already has that air of nostalgia built-in, but its aesthetics seem to reach back even further -- there's something naive and unreal about the way all the characters act, right from the moment that they pick up a strange package left on their doorstep by a stranger at 5am and never for a moment imagine there's anything sinister at work.

Carson said...

It interests me that you seem to be decently intrigued by Kelly's work even given your love of Lynch. To me, Richard Kelly is just a Lynch rip-off, nothing more. I loathe Donnie Darko more than any other widely praised film off the top of my head. While Kelly does toss out a bunch of ideas, some fascinating and some dull, they are disjointed and don't serve a larger function, which I think is not the case with Lynch. Kelly always appears more intrigued by the idea of presenting cosmic concepts rather than actually having any genuine connection to them. Just thinking about the absurd premise of The Box makes me cringe; does this guy really think he's addressing important philosophical quandaries?

Ed Howard said...

Carson, I can certainly understood that reaction, and as I said, I don't think Kelly has really digested his Lynch influences, so the rip-off accusation is fair enough. Where I disagree with you most strongly is the contention that Kelly doesn't have a "genuine connection" to his ideas. I think actually he takes this stuff very seriously, which is really what gets him in trouble with mainstream audiences — he's very earnest and sincere when it comes to the time loops and metaphysical journeys and mystical experiences in his films. He also seems conscious of the fact that he's addressing rather fundamental, basic moral and philosophical concepts: in this film, Cameron Diaz's character is a high school English teacher who explains Sartre to a disinterested class. It's all presented like a Philosophy 101 exercise: Do you press a button to benefit yourself and kill another human being? Do people value their own material desires even above the survival of others? This tone is in keeping with the overall B-movie sci-fi aesthetic at work here; those kinds of movies often linked absurd concepts to moralizing messages, too.

Basically, I admire the way Kelly toys with all this stuff, even if I question whether he'll ever really be a great filmmaker in his own right.

Drew said...

Great writeup Ed. I saw this earlier today and enjoyed it quite a bit. The Lynch comparisons are apt and Kelly is still clearly wearing his influences on his sleeve at this early point in his career, and while I do share your question as to Kelly ever being a Great filmmaker in his own right, I see a distinct visual touch in his work and the atmospheres he creates that I've always admired.

Another thing I really enjoy about Kelly's films so far (my favorite being the massively underappreciated Southland Tales) is the almost childlike sense of glee and awe that bleeds through his images...this is clearly a guy having a ton of fun making movies and that kind of energy bursts through the screen and is contagious. I do hope he eventually is able to put his ideas and metaphysical hangups onto the screen in a less disjointed and patchwork manner, he is saying some interesting stuff but his sloppy storytelling sometimes makes it difficult to mesh with.

Also isn't there some kind of unwritten Ebert-like rule about Frank Langella? Anything with him in it can't be all that bad right? Once again another bravura and sinister performance from him.

MovieMan0283 said...

Based on Donnie Darko and what I've read about his other films (which I haven't seen) Kelly's fatal flaw is a lack of balance. It's a discipline issue to a certain extent, but his films aren't messes in a conventional way: formally they're quite polished, and narratively however twisty and subplotted Donnie Darko made some sort of sense. They are messes more in the sense that they don't feel controlled, nothing seems to have been excluded - everything's been thrown in as if to lose one element would have made the movie lose its soul.

Which need not be the case, at least usually, but maybe for Kelly it is, maybe he's all or nothing. I wonder if that can change, and I think it will have to, if he ever makes a full-on masterpiece. He isn't just Lynch Lite because his command of mood and ability to evoke a dreamy wonder which most films never get close to is all very real. But he probably needs to run the risks involved at staring long, cold, and hard at his almost childlike enthusiasm for his own work and ideas before he can achieve real greatness, I suspect.

Jason Bellamy said...

I haven't seen this, but this is a really strong review. I can imagine the inconsistent experience that is watching the movie -- whether I'll face it myself, I don't know.

Ed Howard said...

Drew, I do agree that despite his Lynch influence Kelly does have at least the foundation of his own style, and he has a fertile visual imagination in his own right. Actually, I don't think his visuals are indebted to Lynch so much as his approach to dialogue, character and narrative. Also agreed about the enthusiasm he shows for making cinema.

Which is why, MovieMan, though I wouldn't necessarily disagree that Kelly lacks balance and discipline, I'm not sure that "fixing" that would really improve his films. In fact, my favorite of his films thus far is Southland Tales by some distance, and it's his most undisciplined and frankly nutty film. Maybe what he really needs to do is continue to embrace his lunacy and imagination rather than trying to bring it under control — though perhaps considering the financial fortunes of his films, that's unlikely, especially since he seems to want some measure of mainstream or box office validation.

And Jason, thanks! I'm not sure how much you'd enjoy Kelly's last two films, though. I have a strong suspicion that you'd see this and Southland Tales as the worst aspects of Lynch magnified.

Jason Bellamy said...

Well now you're just daring me, you bastard.

Sam Juliano said...

I have seen this post up a few days now, and the subsequent outstanding commentary that has followed, but have remained silent as I have not seen this film, despite a flurry of very recent moviegoing activity. I agree with Jason Bellamy that it's a strong review, but that's no surprise.

It's interesting that you have made room here for the sharply divided critical concensus by both lauding the film's plethora of visual and philosophical ideas, and sustained suspence, yet issue this damning disclaimer:

"As the film progresses, it turns from a straightforward moral thriller into something else entirely, and the more Kelly's script tries to explain what's going on here, the more confusing and ridiculous the film becomes."

I saw DONNIE DARKO, and never thought it found its footing despite its intermittant imagination, a view that you apparently share. I like Matheson of course (who doesn't?) and have been a lifelong fan of three of his classic TZ episodes: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," "The Invaders" and "Little Girl Lost." But I am not familiar with the episode from the TZ television series from the 80's upon which this story is based. Yes, an "interesting, ambitious failure" does count for something, and yes it's a majoe pluas to have a Lynchianj sensibility for character as you make claim to here.

So, alas, even with it's serious missteps and issues, I clearly made the wrong decision to see THE FOURTH KIND (an abomination) at my local multiplex on Saturday afternoon during the two hour window prior to the HD opera broadcast. For that I'll blame my son Danny. Ha!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. It's obviously not a movie I'd recommend rushing out to see, but compared to all the formulaic genre material clogging up theaters, it's a worthwhile take on the thriller and sci-fi genres.

Stephen said...

Excellent review, Ed.

I understand all your points even if I disagree a little with your final analysis.

Ambition is a great thing to have. Trying to fit too much into a film can give it a crazed, off-kilter energy. His films to me feel different from any others.

I do have one problem with the film - Norma and Arthur's financial struggles don't really convince, and of course that is the (primary) reason why the button is pressed. It's all relative, I suppose, and maybe to them a hiccup in their income may be particularly worrying.