Friday, November 13, 2009

What's in THE BOX?

Richard Kelly has been working on an odd little resume, but I like that about him. He made his directing debut with Donnie Darko, a deeply strange, but dreamily haunting little movie about a boy who hallucinates (or does he?) an evil giant rabbit. That film flopped, but developed quite a loyal following. As a follow-up, Kelly made the even stranger, and totally insane, Southland Tales, a cluttered futuristic allegory so disjointed and chaotic it’s as if Kelly skipped the main plot and wrote his own fan-fiction for a world only he knows. Nonetheless, some thought it brilliant while the rest of us scratched our heads. Now we arrive at his third feature, an adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story and Twilight Zone episode, The Box and, while it doesn’t quite have the same emotional spark of demented creativity that can be found in Darko, it has its own haunted brilliance about it.

Set in 1976, the movie opens with a suburban middle-class couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) receiving a mysterious package, left on their doorstep under equally mysterious circumstances at dawn. Upon opening the package, they find a box and a note, informing them that a Mr. Steward will show up at 5pm to explain everything. Indeed he does. Steward (Frank Langella) tells them that if they push the button on the box within 24 hours, two things will happen: 1. they will receive $1 million in cash. 2. someone whom they don’t know will die.

This sets up a moral dilemma that is debated (or dithered about, depending on your point of view) for the better part of the first act, following more or less the format of the original story. But Kelly is sowing the seeds for his expanded plot so that, when the decision is made, the movie makes a leap into stranger and stranger territory while still retaining a spooky sci-fi Twilight Zone sizzle. This is the kind of movie that pulls the rug out from under you and then keeps going, finding more and more rugs until you realize you had been standing on more rugs than you could have ever thought possible. Cue the theme music.

The movie is not set in the 1970s just to take advantage of the garish wallpaper and tight bellbottoms, although those accoutrements are certainly present and accounted for. The movie embodies a low-tech terror in the way research must be done at a library, in the way characters can’t communicate quickly, and in the way that, when something really creepy starts going down, there’s not the calming promise of help a mere cell-phone call away. This is a period-piece freak-out that takes full advantage of its setting, but also its subconscious ties to the filmmaking of the time. Kelly shoots the movie with a soft image, lightly grainy with slightly smeared colors, giving the movie a dreamlike feel of stumbling late at night into a pretty good, half-forgotten and half-junky 70s suspense flick. It feels like it would make a great double-bill with something like The Fury.

The performances are nearly perfect (besmirched only by Diaz’s odd accent) for their type, the kind of perfectly bland persons who find themselves more harried and mangy as the story unfurls. There are all sorts of wonderfully cast supporting roles filled by actors who had to have been picked based mostly on their ability to look conspiratorial. Langella projects an eerie calm in the center of the plot, doing things in specific and methodical ways but with his goals obscured to maintain utmost oddity and creepiness. It’s when we learn why he’s doing what he’s doing, through a long expository sequence, that the movie loses some of its effectiveness.

Like Darko before it, The Box doesn’t quite add up its divergent strands of sci-fi subplots and even if they did it would probably be disappointing, but it cruises along with such admirable effectiveness and a shivery haunted quality that it doesn’t quite matter. The movie stirred up my fears, stimulated my heart rate, and jangled my nerves. Even though the movie lets the air out of its balloon a little too early, it still manages to finish strong by turning the finale into a nifty mirror of the first-act’s moral dilemma, crystallizing the central quandary and pushing aside the twisty, complicated plot to shoot straight to the gut. In the end, The Box is a movie of mood and suspense so admirably sustained that it left me smiling while shivering in my seat as the credits rolled.

Note: The Box would make a great third-section to a triptych with The Happening and Knowing. The three recent films, modern B-movies really, have been on the receiving end of sneers and derision from some critics and audiences, but all three have wonderful Twilight-Zone-style hooks that are enjoyably, if a little inconsistently, executed.

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