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A young couple is gifted with a mysterious box that promises them a handsome windfall with deadly consequences.
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The big problem with all adaptations into film is ‘why do them at all’? Oh, it makes perfect sense from a business standpoint – it’s a known quantity that can ameliorate some of the gigantic risk that is studio feature film making. But just in and of itself, it’s a finished piece that’s already been authored. What can film do but simply visualize it, taking it out of the realm of the imagination and cementing it into place.
That’s actually not entirely fair. It’s not as if plenty of the some of the best plays or novels didn’t begin using some other story for inspiration. Ultimately it comes down to the story-teller; will he or she merely repeat the original verbatim with no creativity or bring their own sensibilities to create something new.
On its face Richard Matheson’s old short story ‘Button, Button’ sounds like it would make a decent “Twilight Zone” episode (and it did). A strange man (Frank Langella) shows up on a couple’s (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) and offers them a box with literally nothing in it but a button. If they push the button they receive a suitcase full of money and someone, somewhere will die. Or they can not push it and go on with their lives.
And left to its own devices, the story could just rest right there, a big screen, decently acted “Twilight Zone” episode. But writer-director Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko”) has decided not to take that path and that really does make all the difference.
Expanding greatly on the source material, both in character and theme, Kelly has indelibly stamped his adaptation with his own personality, bringing all of the skill and mood and tone that has made his previous work cult favorites, while also showing a great increase in experience, particularly in how to focus his narrative.
Set in 1976, in the immediate aftermath of the Viking landing on Mars, the box has been delivered to one of the NASA scientists (Marsden) who was part of it by a man, the opening narration tells us, is himself somehow connected to the project.
Except that it’s not delivered to him, it’s delivered to his wife, Norma, who is forced into the role Eve, given the choice between temptation or not (it’s always Eve, isn’t it?), and everyone around her who must pay the price.
There is a great deal of religious mythology mixed into Kelly’s iteration: Norma is introduced lecturing to her students about Sartre’s existentialist vision of hell—a place where everyone truly knows you—and that ultimately is the world they fall down to because of the test of the button.
But it’s mixed in quite skillfully with mind controlled civilians and secret NSA projects, and even some other age old sci-fi mainstays like testing by intelligences from beyond and technology so advanced it seems as magic. It’s testament to Kelly’s skill as director, particularly his ability to subvert the ordinary into something menacing, that even the familiar elements are intriguing and engrossing.
The more it goes on, the more Kelly’s personality comes out from it and the further it moves from its origins, but never fully leaving them behind. And without ever feeling the need to sit down and explain the plot with a whiteboard and PowerPoint presentation the way so many films feel the need to.
Skillful, in fact, is the best way to describe “The Box.” From cinematographer Steve Poster and production designers Alec Hammond’s exacting recreation of the 1970s to the performances; it’s brought together quite well. Despite some puzzling southern accents that make residents of Richmond sound like they’re from West Virginia, the performances are excellent throughout. Langella has been doing reserved menace for some time, and continues to do so quite well, while Diaz keeps a performance that could be unfortunately weepy centered.
But for the most part the film really belongs to Marsden, as Arthur gradually passes from puzzled amusement at their situation to curiosity, wonderment and ultimately despair. It’s a real journey and grounds the film in even its most fantastic moments. You’re completely with him every step of the way, even when those steps lead to him being suspended in a floating cube of water above an unconscious Norma.
“The Box” is, however, quite slow and those looking for the visceral thrills of an out and out horror film will be sadly disappointed. It’s much more intellectualized than it is emotional and that can be tough sell to a lot of audiences. If Kelly can ever really get a handle on how to balance those two aspects he’ll be poised for a breakthrough to major director status. He’s still not there yet, but he keeps improving.
If “The Box” doesn’t have the out and out originality of his “Donnie Darko” or “Southland Tales” it certainly has as much imagination thrown at it, along with Kelly’s usual wonderings about the end of the world and what comes next.
Richard Matheson reportedly didn’t care for the last version of this story because it changed his original intent so much. He probably wouldn’t care for Richard Kelly’s adaptation to much either because it certainly goes its own way. But that’s a good thing. It’s not perfect; it’s a little slow and plodding and has a few characters that don’t add much to the overall affect. But it’s still quite good and well worth your time.