With Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images. 116 minutes.
Director Richard Kelly makes films that divide audiences. His first feature, “Donnie Darko,” was a critic’s darling and a popular cult film. His second, “Southland Tales,” was an incoherent mess that, nonetheless, has its partisans. Now, with THE BOX, he is adapting a short story (“Button, Button”) by Richard Matheson, the fantasy/science fiction writer whose works have served as the basis for such movies as “I Am Legend,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “Somewhere In Time.” While “The Box” is as strange as Kelly’s prior films, it is much more structured.
The premise is beguilingly simple. Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are a middle class couple in 1976 Virginia who suddenly hit a few bumps on life’s road. At that moment, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) appears. He has a hideous scar on his face but is otherwise a dapper gentleman who has a proposition. He has given them a box containing nothing but a large button. They will have 24 hours to decide whether to push the button. If the button is pushed two things will happen. They will receive a million dollars tax-free and someone they do not know will die.
If the movie was just about whether to push the button, this would make a nifty 22-minute “Twilight Zone” (and it did in 1986). In fact, it’s about what happens next. Actions have consequences, Steward notes, and one of the consequences is that the couple starts having encounters with Steward’s “employees.” They are readily identifiable by their robotic demeanor and their tendency to nose bleeds. A sequence shot in the Boston Public Library (even though the film is set in Virginia) is creepier than anything in the splatterporn movies that pass for horror these days.
Much is explained in the course of the film, but some things are left ambiguous and this will be off-putting for many. Yet if you are willing to give yourself over to the premise, this is a truly eerie film about moral choices. There are references to this being a “test,” as if someone – never identified – is judging humanity. Do we focus just on greed and self, as if Ayn Rand was a brilliant philosopher instead of a writer of turgid potboilers? Or are we capable of self-sacrifice, doing something not because it benefits us but because it helps someone else? That’s the dilemma of the film, and it’s one worth contemplating.
Diaz and Marsden are fine as the protagonists, although the showy performance is – ironically – Langella’s cool and reserved Steward. Now in his 70s, Langella is doing some of the best work of his career in movies like “Starting Out In The Evening” and “Frost/Nixon.” While not quite as complex a part, his Steward is a fascinating character who can seem good, evil or completely amoral, sometimes in the same scene.
“The Box” brings to mind a film from earlier this year, “Knowing,” that carries through its odd premise without compromise, and which rewards careful viewing. Those looking for cheap thrills are advised to look elsewhere.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.