R. Kelly Pushes the Button 

BOX.jpg

The Box
Directed by Richard Kelly

In a recent profile, the chastened director of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales sounded eager to play Soderbergh by making something relatively normal. His pose was, endearingly, undercut by idle crazy talk of "thought-recognition software" that would write his scripts while he works out. Too many ideas or nothing but crazy: even for converts to the cultishly clung-to, dazing-and-confusing Donnie Darko, Southland Tales bellyflopped by essentially cross-wiring Mulholland Dr. and Repo Man with the old SNL parody of on-screen CNN infographics. But The Box fits the bill as an absorbing paranoid sci-fi fable, preserving the well-timed weirdness and hitting the same sweet spot as Donnie Darko with another existential tracking shot through the looking glass.

In 1976, a middle-class couple in suburban Virginia (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are presented with the gameshow-buzzer box and a Faustian bargain: push the button and get $1 million "tax free," but upon receipt, someone, somewhere will die. He's a decent-hearted NASA engineer, which puts Langley's orbit within reach; she's a decent-hearted schoolteacher with a maimed foot, based on an actual mindboggling radiation accident undergone by the director's mother (which, worldview-wise, maybe explains a lot; Dad also in fact worked on the Viking module). Diaz's necessary headlining is offset by just-folks character actors, especially in a rehearsal dinner, one of several elements of deja vu and half-recognition that Kelly deploys.

It's not a spoiler of a movie titled The Box that the box is used, but it's best to leave unmapped the Kelly-brand unraveling of normalcy after riders to the deal get broken. Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, nailing the dry puppetmaster tone) is the man who comes bearing the device-facially disfigured, soon disappointed, and apparently powerful. The family home is decorated with eye-popping wallpaper but this non-decadent 70s is the recession-era, company-man kind; the mood is close to Donnie Darko's down beat (score c/o Arcade Fire, occasionally channeling Tangerine Dream). The couple's son (Sam Oz Stone), sweet with his babysitter and smart with his parents, plays bystander to the adults' compromise, which might stand in for any number of bargains.

Indeed, the moral challenge has been taken as thought experiment—as stand-in for globalized alienation from fatal labor or overseas war—though the pre-PC setting also suggests a restored wonder at technological reach. (Kelly covers all bases, quoting Clarke, Sartre, and a TV fortuitously tuned to What's Happening and bicentennial celebrations backed by the World Trade Center.) And the source story Kelly extravagantly elaborates upon comes from none other than Richard Matheson, the prodigiously produced writer for The Twilight Zone as well as the influential Kolchak TV movies and Spielberg's Duel.

But, not unlike The Limits of Control (which could be called an activist take on the above), it's the uncanny journey of The Box that counts. Kelly knows the right, off-balancing moment to cut to the next raising of stakes, and how to latch on to a preverbally mystifying image (here, in long shot, a hangar with killer-whale curves). Without inviting our dazed projection a la Donnie Darko or requiring a Southland Tales defense of folly, it's a diverting, both dark and ludicrous piece of pulp that, like much of its kind, grimly conjures up more than it can follow through.

Opens November 6

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