Everything goes along with utter excellence and claustrophobic suspense for the first third of the film. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play a well-off couple living in 1970s suburbia with their son. A box with a large red button is left on their doorstep, followed by a peculiar man who presents a deal: if they press the button, two events will occur - they will receive one million dollars, and someone they don't know will die. The story is based on a tale by I Am Legend writer Richard Matheson entitled, "Button, Button" and was once made into an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Such a premise is a little thin for a feature film, so Kelly needed to do something inventive with the raw material. Once the button is pushed, he develops a collage of possibilities for the source of the button, the motivations of the owner and what the decision will mean for the couple. His ending is vastly more intriguing than that of Matheson's story or the Twilight Zone episode. What he extrapolates from the couple's situation is complex, encompassing thoughts on existentialism, altruism and utilitarianism plus offerings from Arthur C. Clarke and Jean Paul Sartre. Indeed, this philosophizing is at times of the muddled and immature bent displayed by Southland Tales, but still, more interesting in a way than the usual black-and-white platitudes peddled by Hollywood.
So it is unfortunate that Kelly decided to shoehorn in several puzzling, entirely inconsistent scenes that include large, watery portals. There are other visual reminders of Donnie Darko scattered throughout, but the portals really throw the story off kilter, drowning your curiosity and emotional involvement with the jarring confusion of it all. The recipe for this film seems ot read: One cup of mystery, one cup of conspiracy, one cup of moral dilemma... mixed together with half a liter of watery portals.
Plenty of directors have signature visuals that they weave into all of their movies, but usually they are just inflections and not inexplicably out-of-place sidetracks. Kelly's portals hijack the plot for the film's middle and then, without rhyme or reason, disappear for the final scenes. They are indeed like gates into another dimension - the dimension of studio greed and over-indulgence. Tragic, because it at first seems that Southland Tales was a fluke of misfortune and The Box will be one of the best movies of the year, but then suddenly we're dunked under the water, and left holding our breath until the next time around, waiting for this exciting filmmaker to find his way back to the surface.
The Box ★★★✩✩
Writer, Director: Richard Kelly. Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden. PG-13