The secret is out. Warner Bros. waited to unwrap The Box until two days before its opening because, compared to its madcap predecessors — the psychotic Holden Caulfield update Donnie Darko and the delirious welcome-to-the-21st-century extravaganza Southland Tales — the new Richard Kelly movie is basically a sock of coal for Christmas.
A mysterious stranger offers a nice American couple an unusual deal: They stand to make a million dollars if they'll just push a button on a gizmo that will, they are told, instantly kill a total stranger somewhere in the world. Hugely expanded from Richard Matheson's cautionary short story (which, in its critique of alienated greed, reads like the précis for an old Twilight Zone episode and was, in fact, adapted during the show's mid-'80s revival), Kelly's supernatural thriller is hardly irrelevant in its premise. Familiar enough when Matheson wrote "Button, Button" in 1971, the notion of remote-control murder is newly topical in the days of roadside bombs and drone warfare. The Box doesn't lack for ideas — the maraca bean rattle of extraterrestrial lightning-zap CIA zombie nosebleed conspiracy reaches a dull roar by the time it ends. Neither is the director's first commercial project an impersonal piece of work. The problem is that here, unlike in Donnie Darko, Kelly never manages to invest crank theories and baroque genre trappings with anything deeper than longstanding obsession or autobiographical reference.
As made clear in his interviews, Kelly set the movie in 1976 — the year after he was born — and filled it with details from his childhood and his parents' lives. "I decided to take this gift of a short story and make it about people I care about and respect. I'm not interested in telling a story about a couple of selfish jerks." Indeed, Cameron Diaz — anxious and dowdy as a suburban mom — impulsively pushes the button, and precipitates the "horror," 20 minutes into a two-hour movie, out of panicky concern for her husband (bland James Marsden) and their very nervous little boy (9-year-old Sam Oz Stone) who is in danger of losing his private-school scholarship.
Hmmm. Maternal sacrifice could be a burden and the nuclear family an oppressive unit — or so I've heard. What's more, studio filmmaking is kinda confining, n'est-ce pas? Sartre's No Exit, which Kelly once told Variety was among the three books that influenced him most, figures mightily in The Box. (Kelly also seems familiar with Sophie's Choice — or, at least, her choice.) Unlike Southland Tales, which interrupted a July Fourth barbecue with mushroom-cloud fireworks, The Box issues a very somber cosmic warning. Symptoms multiply, free-floating guilt is literalized, and the psychic mutilation is right out front — Frank Langella's Martian Mephistopheles has half a face — but, considering his movie's outlandish paranormal subject matter, Kelly's booga-booga is actually pretty subdued.
The Box is less chilling than chilly. Precise and measured in its often-inexplicable special effects, the movie inexorably devolves from po-faced sub-Lynchian menace to soggy Kubrickian metaphysics. And yet, although anything but subtle, The Box somehow skirts the utterly ridiculous until its wannabe Wagnerian closer. It's a measure of Kelly's glum conviction that his movie must mean something that the package holds together for as long as it does. The best thing about this movie is that its title keeps suggesting new self-reflexive metaphors — like the tightly wound filmmaker's dogged attempt to think outside it.