Richard Kelly likes things to be complicated. It’s not enough for him to pick a genre, think of a plot, have Person A do X to Person B, then roll credits; Kelly, instead, takes delight in a cacophony of ideas. For example: take Cameron Diaz’s right foot. Ordinarily, the director of a sci-fi thriller wouldn’t pay much heed of Ms. Diaz’s foot, but in The Box, that foot is missing four (significant) toes. Diaz shows us her foot in a scene where she discusses Sartre with her high school students (one of whom is being radio-controlled by Martians). She will later bond with Frank Langella over their mutual deformities. Then, her rocket scientist-husband shoots her in the chest.
Any movie where arbitrary-assassination-by-button is not the weirdest bit…bears watching. It all starts innocently enough, with a car driving away from a suburban home in Langley, Virginia (circa 1976). Cameron Diaz opens the door to find a mysterious package containing the titular storage device. It’s not actually a box, more a hollow platform for a red button. “If you push the button,” Frank Langella explains to her/us. “Two things will happen. First, someone, somewhere in the world, whom you don’t know, will die. Second, you receive a payment of one million dollars.” Cameron decides she can live with the first proviso (provided the second comes “tax free”).
Though this could be a movie about bourgeois complacency, or Cold War paranoia, it’s really about Richard Kelly’s abiding determination to screw with us. No sooner has Cameron pushed the button than her babysitter is babbling about the end of the world. There’s also a NASA shuttle mission to Mars to worry about; a man who’s been struck by lightning; a motel pool that may be a portal to another dimension; an epidemic of nose-bleeds in Virginia; and more pompous philosophical quotes than you’d find at the front of a crappy horror novel. By the time Cameron asks the guy who played Cyclops in the X-Men movies to shoot her, you’ll be inclined to sympathise.
Diaz, playing a mom, a high school teacher, an amputee, an alien abductee, and a Southerner, looks like she needs a rest. In a less ambitious movie, she’d be in peril; here, it’s perilous even to speculate what’s threatening her (though my bet is on the honeycomb wallpaper in her kitchen). Large parts of her motivation have evidently been “abducted” during the editing process, but her decision to push the button feels credible and, even when she’s telling Langella his missing face inspired her to love, you believe that she believes it. Diaz is an asset to The Box because she acts as though she’s in a drama. The movie is the problem, not her performance.
There’s a lot that works in The Box, but most things work at odds with one another. Kelly is colour-blind to good and bad ideas. So the 70s setting seems good to him because it can evoke memories of paranoid conspiracy classics like The Parallax View, and the Sartre allusions seem cool because they lend the movie an air of existentialism, and Diaz’s foot is, in some way, a metaphor for…something. And James Marsden isn’t mis-cast, he’s just playing the part of the rocket scientist the way George Hamilton would have played it (i.e. badly). As usual, Kelly wants the movie to function on about ten different levels. What we’re left with is an art movie for the Star Trek crowd, where one minute someone is talking about moral relativism, and the next: James Marsden is teleporting through a water balloon.
Either Richard Kelly believes there is an audience for this kind of movie, or he ignored commercial considerations, and made The Box anyway. The premise – I’m sure – must have had executives falling over their cheque-books. But Kelly’s execution looks like he directed with both hands…and his feet. Subplots falter. People do things for reasons known only to them. Cameron Diaz’s prosthetic toes never get quite the star-billing they deserve. And a quote from Arthur C. Clarke (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) does not explain half as much as Richard Kelly likes to think. Frankly, it’s juvenile to play games with an empty box.