Richard Kelly certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of ambition. The 34-year-old filmmaker’s latest apocalyptic thriller — after the cult-ratified Donnie Darko (2001) and the willfully obtuse Southland Tales (2006), neither of which did squat upon their initial theatrical releases — is rife with impressive production design, a genuine sense of creepy foreboding and an overarching seriousness rare in a contemporary genre film. The guy no doubt knows his Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock.
It’s 1976 in suburban Virginia where Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) share a middle-class home with their teenage son (Sam Oz Stone). Norma is an English teacher at a private high school who finds out that her employment no longer guarantees payment of her son’s tuition. Arthur is a NASA scientist who has been rejected for a much-anticipated space mission because he failed a psychological test. The film uses these turnabouts as an opening for the ethical conundrum at its center: Should the couple let someone they don’t know die in exchange for $1 million?
The big question comes courtesy of a gentleman (Frank Langella) sporting a serious facial issue — half of his jaw line is missing due to a lighting strike — and baring a box with a big red button inside.
Push it, someone dies and a suitcase filled with cash will be delivered. Of course, there are a few conditions built into the mysterious man’s offer.
Kelly adorns the film’s heavy ethical lifting with impressive period detail, throwing in a TV reference like What’s Happening!! one minute and a literary motif like Sartre’s No Exit the next. The Box’s ’70s setting is awash in garish wallpaper and a general brown-hued haziness, a color scheme that does no favors for Diaz — she’s never looked less glamorous than she does here, just one way in which the director isn’t afraid to challenge convention.
Which isn’t to say the guy is necessarily a visionary, or at least an entirely successful one — Kelly’s grand schemes are undercut by an odd meld of religious/spiritual brow beating and paranormal looniness, both of which seem half-baked. Loosely based on Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button,” The Box, as conceived by Kelly, turns into a sometimes compelling, borderline preposterous puzzle with a clear worldview: the human race is doomed, inevitably corrupted by its self-involved nature. Grade: C-plus
Opens Nov. 6. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.