Movie Review: The Box (2009)

Photo: Warner Bros.

How much do you know about French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, his play “No Exit” and his ideas of free will? Well, you may want to bone up a bit if you want to have a leg up on your friends before going into Richard Kelly’s The Box. This is hardly an accessible film, but it can become increasingly available if you have done a bit of homework in advance.

Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as Norma and Arthur Lewis are presented with an interesting proposition when Frank Langella playing the mysterious Arlington Steward shows up on their doorstep. His face, disfigured due to an initially unknown accident, is a source of unease as he offers the couple a button unit with the promise that should they push the button someone they don’t know will die and in return they will be given one million dollars. The proposition sounds like a no brainer and we even joked about it earlier this week, but as presented in the film I can understand why the Lewis family may be a bit hesitant to condemn someone to death in favor of a major pay day. Consequences can be a bitch.

They, of course, do end up pushing the button which sends things on a wild roller coaster that I won’t even begin to spoil here. However, I will say I stared at the screen in bewilderment for the majority of the film’s duration wondering just what the hell was going on. By the time it was all over I was asking myself Why? What was the point of it all?

Lessons of free will versus destiny ring loudly in the film’s final moments resulting in a couple of possible scenarios running through my head. Unfortunately, excited about the prospect of all the time I had spent actually going somewhere, I was eventually let down by the way things turned out. Kelly reached for the stars in this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” and it’s nice to see Warner Bros. doesn’t appear to have gotten too hands-on with a film that never for an instant feels like a major studio piece, but in the end I felt Kelly pulled back, realizing his reach extended too far.

I will applaud Richard Kelly for continuing to push the boundaries and somehow manage to do it inside the studio system. However, the fact he was able to get a non-Hollywood film made in Hollywood is only the front line battle, the true test is the content. While the concept behind The Box is fascinating, it really could have used a little tightening up. Kelly was right not to dig too deep into some aspects of his outlandish story, but his attempts to build tension ultimately cause the film to become something it’s not all while leaving the more intriguing story details a mystery to be solved with only scant pieces of evidence as you head home from the theater.

NOTE: Warner Bros. screened this film at 7:30 PM the night before opening leaving me with very little time to digest it before publishing this review. I have a feeling my opinion of this film may improve over the coming weeks and suggest anyone that sees it to be sure to bring a friend and keep an open mind. There seems to be a lot to this story and it’s unfortunate the studio didn’t have the confidence to give film reviewers a proper chance to absorb the film fully.