Monday, November 9, 2009
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.