Blu-Ray Review: Richard Kelly Strains to Think Outside ‘The Box’

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CHICAGO – Most filmmakers are content in recycling ideas. Richard Kelly strains to come up with new ones every time he steps behind a camera. It’s difficult to think of him ever becoming a commercial commodity (thoughts of David Lynch directing “Return of the Jedi” come to mind). Yet Kelly’s boundless ambition has often far exceeded his abilities.

“The Box” is only Kelly’s third feature, and it very well may be his last for quite some time. It’s the kind of film guaranteed to send most mainstream moviegoers running for the hills. Kelly’s first picture, the wonderfully idiosyncratic “Donnie Darko,” is a quintessential portrait of modern teenage angst, though it was abandoned by audiences upon its initial release in October 2001 (they probably weren’t ready to see a plane engine crash into a house). If “Darko” was Kelly’s “Sixth Sense,” then “Southland Tales” was his “Heaven’s Gate.” It played like the biggest student film ever made, as it tried so hard to say something profound with an artistic voice so inept and underdeveloped that it just came off as amateurish. Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0

For his third directorial outing, Kelly treads supposedly safer waters by adapting “Button, Button,” a short story by science fiction author Richard Matheson. The plot, a foreboding puzzle with moralistic underpinnings, would be ideal for an extended “Twilight Zone” episode. As in “Darko,” Kelly strives to recreate the recent past by setting the film in Virginia, circa 1976. A suburban couple, NASA scientist Arthur (James Marsden) and high school teacher Norma (Cameron Diaz), find themselves in a sudden financial crisis. A swift answer to their problems comes in the form of a box, presented to them by a mysterious gentlemen (Frank Langella) with a facial disfigurement borrowed from Two Face. The box looks and functions like a malevolent Easy Button from Staples. If the couple presses a red button on the hollow box, two things will happen: they will receive one million dollars, while someone unknown to them will die. They have twenty-four hours to decide.

Cameron Diaz solemnly drifts through Richard Kelly’s thriller The Box.
Cameron Diaz solemnly drifts through Richard Kelly’s thriller The Box.
Photo credit: Warner Home Video

For the first hour, Kelly has the viewer firmly in his grasp. Once Norma presses the button, a host of strange happenings take place. But when the meaning behind these happenings is revealed, the film collapses into hokey melodrama. Langella delivers a monologue that explains all of the plot’s key secrets in artless exposition a half hour before the film is over. Yet the picture starts heading downhill long before then, with an homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey” that verges on self-parody. There’s also an excess of inexplicable character motivations. Diaz looks worn throughout the picture, as her character despondently makes one dumb decision after another. Marsden, however, has rarely been better, and the film succeeds in sustaining interest even as its credibility crumbles into dust.

The Box was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on February 23rd, 2010.
The Box was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on February 23rd, 2010.
Photo credit: Warner Home Video

“The Box” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, Spanish and French audio tracks, and includes both a DVD and digital copy of the film. Kelly’s audio commentaries have always been compulsively listenable, and this one is no exception. It was recorded a few weeks after the film tanked, and the director occasionally likens his characters to his equally baffled audience (when Norma asks, “What’s happening?”, Kelly quips, “A lot of people say that about my movies”). He explains some elements of the film, while carefully preserving the ambiguity of others, and says that the film’s central question boils down to, “How altruistic is our species?”

Matheson pops up for a brief interview where he reveals that he stole the idea for “Button, Button” from his wife’s psychology class. Visual effects breakdowns illustrate how Langella’s face was restructured by covering it in digital track markers the size of ping pong balls (it’s a wonder the actors could maintain a straight face during Langella’s tense scenes). There’s also nine minutes of perplexing footage titled, “Music Video Prequels” that fail to generate much additional intrigue. The best extra is an unusually candid featurette where Kelly explains how Norma and Arthur were closely based on his own mother and father, who are both interviewed as well. It’s startling just how autobiographical the characters are, and it’s curious why Kelly would choose to honor his parents by fusing their backstory with such bleak material. “I don’t know how many more times I’ll be able to do this,” Kelly says, hinting at the uncertain future of his career. Don’t worry, Kelly. If M. Night Shyamalan is still allowed to make movies, then you’ll certainly get another chance.

‘The Box’ is released by Warner Home Video and stars Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osbourne, Celia Weston and Sam Oz Stone. It was written and directed by Richard Kelly. It was released on February 23rd, 2010. It is rated PG-13. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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