In Defence of… The Box
I’ve only written the title of this article and already I’ve lied to you, or at least, told a half-truth. I will not actually be defending The Box, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi morality play from 2009. I can’t defend it because, in all honesty, it isn’t all that great. What I will be doing is defending my initial reaction to the film. I saw the film upon release and, in all likelihood, will never watch it again. That was five years ago, and as such, much of the finer details of the film escape me. What I do want to talk about here are the things I do remember about it, and what I remember most about The Box are its big brass balls.
The basic premise behind The Box is simple: A mysterious stranger arrives at the door of a married couple carrying a box and offering a choice. They can press the button on the box and receive financial security at the cost of some poor stranger’s life, or don’t press it and go on as they are. It’s the same premise behind Richard Matheson’s short story Button, Button which was used as a foundation for the Twilight Zone episode of the same name. As far as ideas go, it’s a good one, rich with potential. And where Kelly goes with it is… unexpected. But not completely. If you were to guess how the story goes, your best guess would be the button is pushed, the money received, and a whole host of repercussions and guilt befalling those responsible. And you’d be right. Kelly knows this, he’s aware the audience know the couple will press the button and are damned as soon as they do so. So he asks a different question. Who is the man offering the box and why is he offering it?
The answer to that question is where the film both soars and stumbles. It’s at this point that the film becomes a whirlwind of ideas, throwing weird at the audience with gleeful abandon. Frank Langella turns up with half his cheek missing, there are existential ponderings, pillars made of water, nose bleeding pod people, talking lightning and some freaky pervert who has an inappropriate fascination with Cameron Diaz’s deformed foot. It’s odd, and based on the first third of the movie, quite the surprise, despite coming from the guy responsible for Southland Tales. Judging from the reactions of most, (including one member of the audience whose audible sighs of “what the fuck” became increasingly hilarious as the film went on) the surprise was not a pleasant one. Possibly because of Cameron Diaz, who was the highest paid actress in Hollywood at the time, audiences were expecting something a little more mainstream, and not the bag of batshit insanity they were treated to instead. Tonally it’s all over the place, going from creepy to unintentionally (?) funny to weird to befuddling, sometimes in a single scene. But Kelly doesn’t care. The Box is a giant Fuck You to convention. When watching the film in the theatre I felt drunk, just rolling with whatever lunacy came next. But when not willing to roll with it, as many clearly weren’t, it becomes a chore.
When I saw the film back in 2009 I was just finishing an extensive three year course in scriptwriting for film and television. Day in and day out I would pull apart films, scripts, and stories to find out what made them tick, what worked and what didn’t. It was (and is) fascinating, and gave me a real insight into how stories work, and the most effective ways in which to pull an audience in. This familiarity with story structure often meant I could see where a story was going, or how it was arranging certain pieces for a later payoff. When done well, it’s wonderful to see, but sometimes it can feel like a film is simply ticking off boxes on a checklist. It’s just “This needs to happen so this can happen” without any verve or imagination. When telling the story of The Box most writers would give the audience a reason to empathize with the central characters, to understand why they would consider letting a person die for their own financial gain. Perhaps they were to be evicted from their house, or one of them had a serious illness they couldn’t afford treatment for, or whatever, as long as it was something that allowed the audience to put themselves in the characters shoes (or half a shoe in Diaz’s case) and understand their dilemma. Kelly doesn’t do this. In fact, at one point in the film James Marsden’s character goes out and buys an awesome new car, such is their wealth. The closest he comes is having the couple struggling to pay for their son’s tuition fees for private school. Not something the majority of the audience have the luxury of worrying about. My point is, it’s ballsy and unexpected, and at the time I appreciated his decision although I could see it was the wrong one.
Diaz is as close as the film gets to an anchor, to holding onto the audience throughout the madness, but there isn’t enough of a character to do so. She does good work with what she’s given, but by not giving her a legitimate reason to need the money, he lessens the audience’s reason to care. But at the same time, I don’t NEED one million dollars, and if I was put in their situation I would damn well consider it (… okay, I’d take it without blinking an eye). This may have been Kelly’s point, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that I don’t care for their plight. Maybe the point would’ve been better made if the couple were getting by, working hard with few opportunities to relax, but doing okay. If they were the everyman and everywoman who won’t die in the cold without the money, but could certainly use it, instead of the successful, arguably greedy people they are, we could relate. But no, I’m glad that isn’t the direction he went in, even now I applaud his decision. What I so enjoyed at the time was how risky it all felt, everything was off, askew, even Diaz’s accent. The film was pissing in the wind on a cold day, it didn’t do it any favours but it felt good as it was happening.
It comes down to a question of expectations. Would The Box have been a better film if it was more conventional, adhered to the rules and was without surprise? It probably would have made more money. And I think, yes, as painful as it is to say as I do love a renegade, it would have been a better film. If Kelly had asked the question the audience were expecting, “What would you do?” and given us characters we could relate to and empathize with, it would better resonate. Instead he asked “Who is the stranger behind the box and what does he want?” and I don’t remember his answer, because ultimately he failed to make me care. Which is why I lied to you, and why I can’t defend The Box as its case is damaged by too many mistakes. What I am saying is sometimes it’s a pleasure to watch a film dare to make them.