Film review – The Box (2009)

Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) and Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz)

The writer/director Richard Kelly is shaping up to go down in film history as one of those directors who began his feature film career magnificently but never got close to repeating the same magic again. In Kelly’s case his magnificent début was the 2001 science-fiction teen film Donnie Darko. Since then Kelly released a bland Director’s Cut of Donnie Darko and then in 2006 he made Southland Tales, which was an unmitigated disaster. His third film, The Box, fits somewhere in between as a major improvement on Southland Tales but not even close to the excellent original version of Donnie Darko. Based on a 1970 short story by What Dreams May Come and I Am Legend author Richard Matheson, The Box explores ethical questions about self-interest and the role that distance plays in our ability to sympathise with other people.

In The Box a financially struggling family in 1976 are given a strange box and told they have 24 hour hours to decide if they will press the button on the box that will result in them getting 1 million dollars and the death of somebody completely unknown to them. Despite the intriguing scenario that had the potential to function as a parable for how so many of us complicity live a lifestyle that we know is having an adverse effect on people in other parts of the world, The Box never quite delivers.


Kelly’s film is a slow and moody piece that tries a little bit too hard to generate a sense of mystery with creepy psuedo-atmospheric music, repeated references to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play No Exit and the constant appearances of random weird people who spontaneously get blood noses. The couple with the moral dilemma are played rather flatly by James Marsden and Cameron Diaz, who sports a bad prosthetic deformed foot.  On the other hand, Frank Langella is suitably unsettling as the man who brings them the box and the CGI effects used to create the effect of him missing half his face are very impressive.

Despite the laboured beginning, the middle section of The Box does have inventive moments that recall the mystery of Donnie Darko but then the film slumps again in the over-explained final act. The Box tries to tackle the big themes of human nature and our place in the universe but it never quite manages to rise to the occasion. It is a film that wants to be profound but it ends up feeling more like a lesser episode of The X Files.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. Yeah, it definitely has a “less X-Files” feel to it. Still, despite its many imperfections I can’t help but admire Kelly’s audacity and there is a part of me that wouldn’t mind giving it a second look….sometime down the track.

  2. I haven’t seen this one yet, but I’ll go to bat for Kelly. I actually felt like Southland Tales was a marked improvement over the original cut of Donnie Darko. Kelly seems to have two themes as a director: the power of image and a deep, dream-haunted surrealism that is what gives his movies their measured, creepy atmospheres. Southland Tales is almost a collection of vignettes rather than a unified story, and it blows apart any attempt at imposing a traditional 3-act structure over the top of it (and in fact its attempts to graft some kind of traditional conclusion onto the totally delirious setpieces leading up to the end of the film account for a lot of the hostility of its reception, I think).

    I think Kelly operates in a candy-colored version of David Lynch’s world, where striking images and setpieces are substituted for story and narrative flow. Both Donnie Darko and Southland Tales were at their best when they were building scenarios (especially Kelly’s obsession with fakey retroism) and dwelling on moments (Donnie with his therapist; Donnie and his sister the morning after the party; The Rock’s moments of weird vulnerability; the completely out-of-nowhere, brilliant Justin Timberlake lipsync of The Killers) and at their worst when they had to move the plot along.

    The Box intrigues me, because the story is pretty exhausted at this point (thanks to Abu Ghraib overdosing everybody on the Milgram experiment and Matheson’s weird pull on Hollywood ensuring that this story’s already been adapted several times, not to mention Numb3rs and Knowing and Signs going where I’m pretty sure the story chooses to go) but I can trust Kelly to do something volatile and imaginative with it, even if it doesn’t add up to anything too meaningful.

  3. Hi Forrest

    Thanks for dropping by and leaving such a thoughtful and well-argued comment in defense of Kelly and Southland Tales, which is a film not too many people have been able to defend with such a considered approach.

    My main problem with Southland Tales actually has more to do with what I feel is simply dodgy dialogue and clunky acting. I actually quite liked the bizarre atmosphere and almost free-fall narrative but it was let down by poor writing. For a film to be that audacious I think the director needs to have a better grip on his material. Kelly clearly has a lot of ideas that he wants to communicate but I’m not convinced he is developed enough as a filmmaker to do so successfully.

    I see where you are coming from with the comparison to David Lynch but I think the major difference is that Lynch is motivated by feelings and impulses where Kelly is motivated by his desire to express specific ideas. There is of course a huge amount of meaning in Lynch’s cinema but his films are far more organic than Kelly’s films, which feel too self-consciously like puzzles that are designed to be de-coded. Having said that, Kelly has only done three features so far so perhaps it is too soon to make grand statements about him just yet. Despite everything I’ve said I am still very intrigued to see what he does next.

    You clearly have an excellent knowledge about the background to the ideas explored in The Box so please come by again once you’ve seen it and let us know what you think.


  4. I would characterize the acting as uneven rather than clunky. Sarah Michelle Gellar played a concept and not a character (as did Bai Ling, who doesn’t act so much as articulate a certain performance of “exoticism” or “sexuality”, and her presence in a film is rarely a good sign), and I will agree that Dwayne Johnson did tend to coast a little on his (considerable) native charm, but he also had a lot of great individual moments, and I really, really enjoyed the performances by Seann William Scott, Nora Dunn and (especially) Miranda Richardson. There are a lot of really good individual performances, even though the cast is so vast that there’s enough room for some memorably clunky acting. Even Mandy Moore was pretty good(?!). Kelly is not an actor’s director, and the performances in his movies tend to be pretty all over the place (in a contrasty, Rocky Road-like way — in Donnie Darko, contrast Patrick Swayze’s WTF demi-self-aware hamminess with Drew Barrymore’s eerie self-assured naturalism). But the good bits are really good, and when the ensembles gel, he gets an indie-like intimacy that is at odds with the high concepts of his movies. I think that’s a lot of Donnie Darko’s appeal.

    Do you really think Kelly is trying to articulate specific ideas? If you sum up the totality of Donnie Darko (a movie, I feel compelled to disclaim, I wanted to like more than I did) — with its alternate reality game web site, its multiple cuts, the endless talking around it that Kelly did while promoting it — you end up with what seems like a purposefully obtuse and self-contradictory farrago of parapsychology, time travel and wantonly nonsensical quantum physical speculation. Lynch is definitely part of a tradition that explicitly ties to Buñuel, and Kelly is less avant garde and auteurish and more indebted to Philip K Dick’s self-contradictory gnostic materialism, as well as a very American kind of ramshackle whatever-works bricolage (Kelly and Richard Linklater are definitely kindred spirits).

    I like that Kelly tries to push people out of their comfort zones, and I’m happiest when he’s suggesting possibilities rather than implying there’s a single reading you just haven’t discovered yet (which might be why the director’s cut of Donnie Darko fell so flat). The Box is a good starting point for Kelly because it’s got a bunch of Kelly’s preoccupations embedded in it as a very concrete sort of thought experiment, and it allows him to do his usual poking and prodding in a lower register than his impossibly overambitious debut and sophomore films.

    That said, I still haven’t seen it. I’ll definitely stop back to report once I have. I just feel compelled to defend Southland Tales, mostly because, even though Donnie Darko left me ambivalent, I knew I was going to love it as soon as I read about it (some of my other favorite films along these lines: The Rapture, Paprika, In the Mouth of Madness, Jacob’s Ladder) and it seems to have been consistently misread ever since its disastrous debut at Cannes. I am hoping that someday it’ll find enough of a following to convince Kelly / Universal to release a version with his original Cannes cut on it.

  5. I think you’re correct about Kelly not being a great actor’s director and that his characters can suffer from being concepts rather than characters. Having said that, I remember really liking Seann William Scott in Southland Tales and there were other performances worth mention as you have done so.

    Good work on linking Kelly with Richard Linklater and Philip K Dick – I reckon that sums him up perfectly. I was a little annoyed at some of the blatant references to Philip K Dick’s novels in Southland Tales but to be fair I am an avid reader of Dick’s novels so such moments undoubtedly wouldn’t have stood out so much to most viewers.

    I’m certainly now going to give Southland Tales and The Box another go somewhere down the track. I actually didn’t think much of Donnie Darko when it first came out either. I found it very pretentious and horribly overrated. It was only on a second viewing that I really embraced it. I would also be curious to see the original cut of Southland Tales and at some point I’d also like to read the graphic novel that takes place before the film. I honestly still suspect that it is ultimately a film that simply doesn’t work, despite have some interesting moments, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

    In the meantime, thanks again for contributing such excellent insight and discussion. I’m really enjoying reading your analysis.

  6. Hi Thomas, you certainly hit the nail on the head with this one. As a long time admirer of Donnie Darko, I was dissapointed with The Box. An X Files episode is right, the way this film was shot was gaudy and aged, perhaps to set the mood for the era it was set in, regardless it did not work. I have however heard interesting defenses of Kelly, using words such as uncompromised vision and complex symbology, while all this is good and interesting it does not change the fact that sometimes it just does not work, it certainly didn’t now, maybe a film like this could have its place in the hey-days of The X Files, the generalized conspiracy theory genre is drying up.

  7. Mr. Caldwell, I enjoyed the review and the comments above too.
    I was also disappointed by The Box.
    In Darko, recall that when the cult of Cunnigham was invading the high school Kelly had Donnie perform a takedown of the highest order. While Southland is flawed on many levels, we saw the same energy and attitude, but this time Kelly sticks to all of America with nothing less than an apocalypse for its amorality, political division, et cetera.
    With The Box, Kelly apparently believed he had skills as a more traditional sci-fi writer/director. But sci-fi was never his strong point. It was just a layer in his previous films which wasn’t entirely consistent and it didn’t really matter.
    But the really sad thing about The Box is that the Kelly I liked is completely absent. There is no attitude. No anarchy. No sticking it to the man. No questioning authority. Right about the time Cameron Diaz should have been putting Steward and his bosses in a world of hurt, she keels over.

  8. Thank you Mr Crane!

    I think you’ve nailed some of the issues with The Box nicely – Kelly isn’t great with sci-fi and the film lacks spirit.


  9. I’m am surprised that so many have posted negative opinions of the movie. At some point, once you have seen many movies, you begin to long for something different; something that isn’t like a pop song. The Box is definitely not a pop song. It is art. I loved the imagery, the mystery, the soundtrack, and the acting. Unfortunately the poor reception of movies like The Box, encourages Hollywood to continue to produce more of the over simplistic, over acted, CGI laden garbage because that is what the average person wants to purchase. Having said that, David Lynch gives me a headache. haha


    I really liked the box. It’s solemn but creepy at the same time and it also brings up questions about humans such as the fact that we can decide our fate sometimes and sometimes we can’t.

    The only thing that annoyed me was that only the women pressed the button and the women had to get shot.

  11. Unadulterated garbage. Obviously you’re going to get film lovers talking about the cinematic brilliance of the film. That’s no different than book lovers picking up an unreadable tome bereft of a story, humour, or coherent philosophy and praising the beauty of the author’s prose. There is absolutely nothing in this movie to sustain either the audience’s interest or a legitimate critical-philosophical debate. It’s a melange of nonsense. It’s no better or worse than a SLAM poet writing “WAR” in the middle of a blank sheet of paper and holding up the “poem” as great art. Or art. Is this movie audacious? Are you kidding? It’s scripted like a Fantastic Four comic. Virginia Woolf would have spit on this trash. You can have a non-linear narrative, but you still need a damn narrative. Diaz and Marsden as parents? The kid crawling toward the locked door at the end of the film? I was actually shocked that the whole thing didn’t turn out to be a dream. This has to be Kelly’s last movie. It has to be. The only thing that you can say after a movie like this is F*ck Hollywood.

  12. Hi Oscar – Why do you assume that ‘film lovers’ would ‘obviously’ think The Box is ‘cinematic brilliance’ when so many of them didn’t? Just by reading my review and several of the comment here you can see that there is little consensus among us film lovers about whether or not The Box is any good. I certainly didn’t think much of it and I proudly consider myself to be a film lover.

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