Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Box

I didn’t know what to think walking into The Box. Despite the fact that I’m a pretty big Southland Tales apologist, I’d pretty much written off Richard Kelly. I mean I like Southland Tales but I pretty much like it the same way I like a Freakshow; nice every now and again but nothing I want to make a habit out of. I basically thought he might make interesting films, or more accurately he’d probably make interesting scenes in mediocre films. But did I ever expect him to connect with me the way he did with Donnie Darko? To deliver that gut punch of emotion and intellect again? No I did not. As Vern said with Southland Tales he went from being the director of Donnie Darko to the writer of Domino and I kind of expected him to just keep fucking around.

Well I might not have loved The Box, but I sure liked it a hell of a lot, and one thing's for sure Kelly isn’t fucking around anymore and I’m no longer writing him off. Maybe he’s not just the director of Donnie Darko again, maybe now he’s the director of the Donnie Darko Director Cut, that slightly more muddled, less sure footed re-edit. I don’t know if Kelly will ever regain that Golden boy status he had just after Darko. Nor do I believe that he necessarily should. Domino and Southland Tales are movies made by someone who literally believes he can do no wrong. The Box is the film of a man whose learnt his lesson. It’s as intriguing and adult as Southland Tales was Juvenile.

The premise of The Box is pretty killer. If you haven’t heard it, it’s as basic as it gets. The Lewis’s a cash strapped couple is given a box with a button on it by Frank Langella (AKA I’m not Robert Loggia). If they press the button, someone somewhere in the world will die, and they will receive a million dollars. If they don’t, they’ll get a hearty slap on the back for being such good sports about the whole thing.

After a minimum amount of hemming and hawing the couple eventually push the button. The way it’s played you can’t really blame them. It’s just the idea of someone dying, it’s so abstract, and the money well it’s so concrete, it’s right there. How can you not be tempted? Besides (and not to get too grad student here) but by participating in this society we basically do the same thing every day. What Diaz does with The Box isn't much more different then what we do every time we buy something we know was made in a sweatshop, or grab a steak from a factory farm, which most of us do every day for the sake of convenience. We ignore our moral obligation because we're so far removed from it. It's so easy just to not think about it. Anyway one head slappingly obvious and but so well delivered complication later and the Lewis’s are scrambling to find some way out of what is essentially a cosmic mousetrap.

The Box’s success really comes down to it’s performance’s, it’s not a big special effects film, in fact it’s down right intimate. Particularly impressive is Langella, an actor whom I will admit I’ve never given much thought to before, this will of course change. His Mr. Seward, smooth as silk and merciless as a garrot, with his hypnotic face, shot by Kelly with such wit. Kelly shoots Seward’s wound as negative space as often as he shows it full on, highlighting what isn’t there as much as what is. It’s right up there with Christopher Johnson as one of my favorite effects of the year.

James Marsden proves once again that he’s one of the best secret weapons in the movies today. And Cameron Diaz acquits herself admirably here. I’ve seen her used as a bit of whipping boy in some of the reviews I’ve read, and while her range may not be particularly wide, she really sells the bond she shares with her husband, which is frankly really all she needs to do. You can feel how much they depend on each other, and when that bond is put to the test you can really feel it.

Kelly really does well here, creating a genuine feel of dread and tension throughout the runtime. Reining in his worst tendencies while keeping his personality in full force. There’s a nice little in joke about Kelly’s supposed obtuseness, when Langella exasperatedly explains exactly what he’s doing to a beleaguered NSA official before asking “Do you need a clearer explanation?”. There’s also a sly Darko in joke (check the pictures in the manual Marsden’s character rifles through on his car trip with Langella’s last test subject).

What keeps The Box firmly in “good” territory, rather then great is the film’s somewhat muddled middle section. While the first and third acts are tightly wound, things get a little soft and confused in between. The fact is that we know that the Lewis’s can’t escape the bed they’ve made for themselves. And we know it to, and to be fair Kelly says as much, the fact that they go see the high school production of “No Exit” isn’t an accident. But the strictures of Hollywood filmmaking demand that they must be given a chance to escape, we follow the Lewis’s separately as they are given cryptic hints that they can save themselves that are never mentioned again, then try to accomplish things we are unsure of, to achieve objectives that are never clear.

These scenes are painfully perfunctory, particularly one in which Langella calls up and literally tells Diaz to “Make sure her husband isn’t playing detective.” This despite the fact that he never minds, neigh actively encourages such actions later on. These scenes are going to drive Kelly haters up the wall, filled as they are with cryptic clues, and seemingly meaningless revelations.

Still these scenes are not a total wash, Kelly has a pretty good concept up his sleeve to power most of these sequences. The basic idea is that once the button is pushed Mr. Seward gets to run his rats through the maze with the aid of his “employees” who can be literally anyone he cares to tap into his hive mind. The encounters with the employees aren’t even particularly malicious, but they tap into a kind of paranoia that’s hard to shake. Even in these weaker scenes there are some great moments, A scene where Mardsen is corralled through a library is particularly disturbing, though the films pay off is the closest the movie gets to Southland Tales style “What the fuck” obtuseness, in which Mardsen must choose between three pillars of water to walk into, two of which apparently lead to hell. (Truth in criticism: To be fair, it makes more sense then most of the stuff in Southland Tales, and even has an explanation of sorts, its just the way it's presented "Eternal Damnation?" really?)

Still things pick up for the gloriously odd (love Santa), nerve wracking, and even heartbreaking ending. To spoil it would be unfair. I will only say that no matter what can be said about Kelly or his various movies, he has never lacked the courage of his convictions and he takes the movie to it’s logical conclusions.

The Box is not perfect, but it’s powered by that same bracing mix of intelligence and daring that made Kelly so exciting to me in the first place. Against all odds he has firmly recaptured my attention.


Ryan McNeil said...

"While the first and third acts are tightly wound, things get a little soft and confused in between..."

This is putting it mildly. I was talking with the friend I saw this with yesterday, and we openly admitted that if you get rid of the gigantic mindfuck that takes place in between Steward's third and fourth visits to the Lewis' home.

I openly laughed at things that were supposed to freak the audience out, and just couldn't buy where this movie wanted to take me.

Loved reading your review - after hating a movie as much as I did this one, I'm always glad to find someone out there liked it!

Bryce Wilson said...

See even though the way it was done was occasionally silly (once again the pillars of water) I liked the twist itself and was intrigued by the idea of Loggia's employers.

And some of the imagery used was pretty creepy, the poor babysitter's walk down the hotel corridor genuinely had me freaked out.

It actually reminded me of Messiah of Evil a little bit.

Ryan McNeil said...

It might have creeped me out a tad more had moments like those not been accompanied by that odd 1960's era sci-fi matinee soundtrack.

The thing is - moments like that usually give me the willies. Don't know why this one didn't land.

Bryce Wilson said...

I have to admit I was really disappointed in the soundtrack. It wasn't bad just so understated. I suppose I was expecting something a little more operatic from Win Butler.

Though If I'm being honest I was probably just hoping I could buy the soundtrack as the third Arcade Fire album.