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The Box
Richard Kelly's mainstream attempt.
The Box
Cameron Diaz Stars in "The Box."
OPENING WEEKEND: $12,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $31,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Alatriste (7/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

November 3rd, 2008: Based on the short story by Richard Matheson, "The Box" stars Cameron Diaz as Norma Lewis and James Marsden as Arthur Lewis, a suburban couple with a young child who receive a simple wooden box as a gift, which bears fatal and irrevocable consequences. A mysterious stranger, played by Frank Langella, delivers the message that the box promises to bestow upon its owner $1 million with the press of a button. But, pressing this button will simultaneously cause the death of another human being somewhere in the world...someone they don't know. With just 24 hours to have the box in their possession, Norma and Arthur find themselves in the crosshairs of a startling moral dilemma and must face the true nature of their humanity.

What to Expect: It's a curse for any artist to make a big splash with their debut work. Invariably they spend the rest of their artistic lives trying to live up to the impossibly high bar they've set for themselves. Some never do. Richard Yates' debut novel, "Revolutionary Road," was his best, and he ruined his life trying to match its success. Some manage it, at great effort. Jeffrey Eugenides' first novel, "The Virgin Suicides," garnered great acclaim, but it took him ten years to write its Pulitzer-prize winning successor, "Middlesex."

Article continues below

In film, wunderkind who explode onto the scene early in their careers with some cinema-changing piece of filmmaking are pretty thick on the ground. Quentin Tarantino. The Wachowski Brothers. Darren Aronosfky. M. Night Shyamalan. Those who succeed, like Joel and Ethan Coen, are the ones who are able to mitigate their unique approaches, which gave them their first flush of success, with a sensitivity to mainstream cinema trends and the ability to temper their auteur sensibilities with practicality. It's the ones who repeatedly try to re-create the film that made them famous that invariably fail (yes, I'm looking at you, Night). Darren Aronofsky wisely chose not to try and duplicate "Requiem for a Dream," (as if such a thing were possible) but is choosing projects that are different but suited to him, and his upcoming "The Wrestler," featuring a possibly career-reviving turn for Mickey Rourke, was well received at Venice this past year, winning the top honor.

Which brings me to Richard Kelly. Kelly's road to directorial stardom was a little unorthodox. He made a little film called "Donnie Darko," which was originally called a dismal failure due to its poor box-office performance. Some have blamed this on the film's release coming close on the heels of September 11th, 2001. I'm not sure I buy that; it was a full six weeks later that "Darko" was released. But the film is one of the bona fide cult classics of our time, quietly gathering fans and success on video and a near-obsessive fan following in the UK, enough so that it merited a Special Edition DVD release in 2004 featuring a director's cut of the film. Fans don't just love this film. They adore it, they worship it, and they're obsessed by it. I am a fan of the film myself. It's that rare species of phenomenon that prompts a first-time viewer, after seeing the film, to immediately show it to everyone they know. The film's success is a testimony to the power of word of mouth.

The question then becomes, what's next? Richard Kelly was a true auteur, "Darko" was his brainchild, written and directed by him, so how would he follow it up? It was hard to imagine what might come next from the kind of mind that could produce the genre-defying strange genius of that film. His answer came with 2006's "Southland Tales," a film that seemed to take forever to arrive, and once it did, baffled nearly everyone. If anything, it's even more inaccessible than "Darko," itself quite impenetrable in some aspects, and "Tales" was a flop. It did not succeed at the box office; even worse, it did not acquire the kind of cult following that its predecessor did. This is the most telling sign of all. The film has its fans, to be sure, but it did not produce the kind of "I have to tell everybody about this movie!" zeitgeist that "Darko" did.

In an interview before the release of "Tales," Kelly said that he had to make one more film of his own, on his own terms, from his own mind, and if that failed, then he would have to consider directing someone else's script, or taking on a more mainstream film, even a studio assignment. This, I think, represents some maturity as a filmmaker in that he recognizes the impracticalities of remaining rigidly devoted to one's own vision. In fact, he seems to have remained true to his promise, because his third film, "The Box," is definitely a more mainstream film, at least on its premise.

First of all, it's not an original story. The film is based upon a short story called "Button, Button" by seminal horror writer Richard Matheson (who also wrote "I Am Legend"). This story has already been adapted for the screen once, albeit the small screen; it was the basis for the 1986 Twilight Zone episode of the same name. In the original Matheson story, an impoverished couple receives a mysterious box from a stranger. The box has a button on it. They are told that if they press the button, they will receive a large sum of money, but someone they do not know will die. After agonizing over the decision, the wife succumbs to temptation and presses the button. The next day, her husband is killed in an accident, and the life insurance payout is the exact sum of money that they were promised. When the stranger returns, the wife demands why her husband was killed, when he said that it would be someone she didn't know. The stranger replies, "How well did you know your husband?"

"The Twilight Zone" episode ends differently. The husband is not killed, and the stranger simply reappears with a suitcase full of their payout. He tells the couple that the box will be reprogrammed and given to someone else, and that it will be someone that they don't know, the implication being that if the new recipients press the button, one of the newly rich couples will die. Matheson was upset by this ending change so much that he had his name removed from the writing credits, and the short story's authorship was attributed to a pseudonym. Personally, I like the Twilight Zone ending better, but I'm not a seminal horror writer, am I? Matheson must be really out of sorts these days after they butchered the ending of "I Am Legend" in the film version. But that's another article.

It is unclear whether Kelly's treatment of this story will hew more to the original Matheson version or the Twilight Zone's adaptation. What is certain is that this is not enough story for a feature-length film. Kelly has stated that he thought the concept was a great entry into a story, but that there'd have to be a lot more to it. Where did the box come from? Who is the man who brought it (being played by the sheer awesomeness that is Frank Langella), and what is his story? People who claim to have read the script have said that there are seemingly unconnected plot threads having something to do with NASA and a doctor who makes a tragic mistake, but reports vary on that subject.

What's also interesting is that Kelly did not write this script intending to direct it himself. It was meant to be a project for horror director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), who can truthfully boast of never having made a film that lost money, mostly by virtue of making graphic horror films on a shoestring budget. The story seems ill suited to Roth's particular gift for splattery horror, and for whatever reason, Roth passed and Kelly took on the project for himself. The market for horror films is very healthy at the moment, with two major genres dominating the cineplexes: remakes of Asian horror films, and torture porn. Roth may very well bear some of the credit for the surge in popularity of the latter category, having made both of the Hostel films, and many also credit him for having resurrected R-rated horror films.

The battle for ratings among horror films is a bit of a quandary, too. Every film that either fails or succeeds is heralded as being the death or rebirth of one type or another. "1408" did well, therefore PG-13 horror films are the answer, while "Hostel II" didn't do well, therefore R-rated horror is dead, but then those "Saw" films keep raking in the bucks while the also R-rated "Grindhouse" tanked. I think those who squabble over the issue are missing the point: filmgoers aren't tired of either R-rated or PG-13 rated horror films, they're tired of horror films that suck. "The Box" has received a PG-13 rating, so make of that what you will, but as a genre, horror is so varied that blanket generalizations about audience's rating preferences seems like so much misty speculation. Horror films don't have to make megabucks to be successful, because most of them are made fairly cheaply, hiring inexpensive talent and utilizing practical special effects instead of CGI. This is why so many horror films are populated by gaggles of TV stars making a movie during their show's hiatus. They come cheap.

"The Box" is already unusual on that score. The film stars Cameron Diaz, hardly a bargain-basement actress, and James Marsden, who may not be an A-lister, but he isn't some refugee from "Gossip Girl," either. Set in the 1970s, what we know of the film's plot is what we already know from the short story and the Twilight Zone episode, but from there, Kelly may have stuck to a straightforward narrative, or he may have "Kellyized" it, as one blogger put it, with a lot of twisty metaphysical gymnastics. We've seen good horror films made from very limited source material; "1408" is an excellent example. The Stephen King short story upon which it's based (which, incidentally, is the scariest piece of prose I have ever read, period, and the film doesn't even begin to approach it for sheer terror) is very short and contains very little narrative. The entire action of the story takes place over the course of an hour. "Minority Report," "Total Recall" and "Brokeback Mountain" were all based on short works, too. "Button, Button" may provide merely a jumping-off point for a larger, more complex story. That could go either way.

Oddly, there have been some rumors flying around pertaining to a not-usually-gossip-worthy aspect of this film: the original score. Last year it was reported that indie-rock supergroup Arcade Fire would be providing music for the film. That rumor was soon put to rest by group founder Win Butler, who blogged that while he and his wife and band co-founder Regine Chassagne might do some cuts, the band would not be involved. Now it's being reported that independent musician Owen Pallett has scored the film. Pallett has played with a number of bands including, you guessed it, Arcade Fire. The truth of any of these rumors is uncertain. It's worth mentioning that the film's IMDB entry contains no credit for original music. Hmmm.

In Conclusion: This film is not about this film. This film is about Richard Kelly, a director whose first film was so beloved and revolutionary that people are watching him like a hawk. Poor guy. After his second effort failed, he's doing something a little more mainstream, which probably sounds like a good idea and might be one, but he now runs the risk of being lost in the shuffle. What about this film stands out, and makes audiences want to see it? Horror films are a dime a dozen, and unless they're torture-porn they're far from sure things. If Kelly can take the concept and make something new and unique with it, fleshing it out without cheapening it, he stands a chance.

Similar Titles: The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, Donnie Darko
November 6th, 2009 (wide)
February 23rd, 2010 (DVD)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Richard Kelly

Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella

Total: 39 vote(s).


Click here to view site

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.

115 min





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