Blink during either the 1950s or 1980s ”Twilight Zone” series’ and you’ll have missed a neat, scary little story about an enigmatic stranger who delivers a box to a struggling married couple. Push the button on the top of the box, he says, and you’ll get a huge sum of money while someone you don’t even will die.
It’s an obvious but very neat parable for the emotional consequences of choice we face every day, the idea actually based on a short story by Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson called Button, Button.
After its original publication in Playboy and two TV appearances, the latest iteration of the enduring tale comes from the mind of Donnie Darko‘s Richard Kelly. After the critical and commercial mauling of his last effort (”’Southland Tales”), Kelly and his backers are undoubtedly hoping for a more mainstream hit. But Kelly could no more keep mind-bending elements out of his films than Russ Meyer could make a movie without breasts. He takes the strong central conceit of the story and runs with it, constructing a whole world around the characters based â€“ as it happens â€“ on his own parents.
Norma (Diaz) and Arthur (Marsden) are happy but doing it tough. He’s a NASA engineer in a space exploration small Virginia company town, she’s a teacher and mother and they have a young son. When the horribly scarred but gentlemanly Arlington Steward (Langella) shows up on their doorstep with the titular box and makes his offer, the pair don’t know what to make of it. The button sits on top of an empty box and it seems like it’s either magic or Steward is insane or some sort of God.
In the expanded universe of Kelly’s take, both might be true. Among the many red herrings and confusing narrative anchors tossed about is Arthur C Clarke’s declaration that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It turns out Steward was once a quite normal scientist working on similar programs as Arthur, but that after being struck by lightning on a launch pad he died on the operating table but was revived a changed man.
Things go from weird to outright freaky and the movie becomes a real mystery story, from the creepy student who wants to see the disfigurement of Norma’s foot that causes her limp to the ephemeral doorways of light Arthur has to choose one of to go back home rather than be sent to what appears to be purgatory.
There’s an overarching story arc but most of the minutiae is a series of strange sequences, scenes and talismans you hope Kelly will explain to you before the film ends. He poses a lot more questions than he answers, and among the hypotheses you’re left with are that Steward was bought back to life by aliens after NASA programs unwittingly alerted them to the humanity’s presence and The Box is their way of testing our mettle before invading us. Or that he’s an angel sent to assess us on a case-by-case basis for admission to heaven.
Like ”Donnie Darko” you’ll need to watch it two or three times to decide if it’s a big parable for something completely different or just a weird story full of signature Kelly imagery.
Despite making you approach it much more than it’s prepared to come towards you, ”The Box” is a very successful exercise in mood and tone. Win Butler’s rambunctious soundtrack combines with a great sense of the mid 1970s to create a sense of menace that will keep you close to the edge of your seat, and though you’re never as sure as you want to be of what’s going on, the cinematic technique is brilliant.