Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Box (Richard Kelly, 2009)

Weird science

The business of being bizarre is a cut-throat competition--you either stand out and stand alone (because you're too out there for most people to take), or you make something more conventional and lose that distinctive flavor, or you try juggle the formula of far-out and familiar in such a way as to snare a wider range of viewers, at the same time smuggling something off-kilter and perverse in the guise of an ostensibly conventional narrative.

Richard Kelly's The Box (2009) borrows from any number of sources: from David Lynch's family melodramas (well--I think Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990) are melodramas that involve families, his short-lived TV series Twin Peaks (1990-1991) most of all), taking particular inspiration from the unique sound design found in Lynch's films. The increasingly complicated (less charitable observers would say 'chaotic') plot has the feel of Chris Carter's The X Files (1993-2002) with their many paranoid scenarios (alien technology, underground conspiracies). The basic premise--a button that if pressed kills someone in the world you don't know, the same time you receive a million dollars--is the kind of moral quandary Rod Serling loved to present in his TV series The Twilight Zone, and in fact the script is from Richard Matheson's 1970 short story “Button Button”--Matheson was a regular Zone writer and the story itself was adapted for the 1980 incarnation of the TV series.

With all these varied ingredients, does Kelly come up with a flavor of his own? One sees more emphasis on family and less on sexuality, unlike Lynch (call Kelly a more family-friendly version); whether that's a good or bad thing is debatable (I like sexuality on the big screen myself). As conspiracies go, Kelley's is as complex as anything in The X-Files (though The X-Files does go out of its way to uncover some truly strange phenomena--as witness the case of Eugene Victor Tooms). Can't say Kelly's idea (a death for a million dollars) is any more memorable or ingenious than what one might find in The Twilight Zone, mainly because it IS an episode from The Twilight Zone--just the sort of twisted tale Matheson would cook up, or his contemporary, Robert Bloch.

Sometimes the difference can be found in the details. Kelley builds on a sense of dread--it's the engine that drives his films--and in this picture he adds edge to that dread by keeping the camera at arm's length. Few closeups (unlike Lynch, who will use them, often to unsettling effect), no handheld shots--for most of the film the camera keeps to a medium distance, with a few establishing long shots, and I think the decision to do this is both nutty and brilliant, especially in the scenes where Frank Langella appears as one Arlington Stewart, a mysterious figure with only three-fourths of a face. You badly want to take a better look at that missing one-fourth--if you could only examine it at close range it would be easier to dismiss as a feat of digital manipulation or makeup prosthetics--but you can't; Kelly won't allow you. When the camera follows either Norma (Cameron Diaz, sweetly vulnerable here) or her husband Arthur (James Marsden) down one corridor after another Kelly ratchets up the tension by following some five feet behind; the shot adds to the character's vulnerability--he or she seems diminished compared to the space they're moving in, plus danger, whatever danger is in store, seems able to approach from any side, from any angle.

Kelly is on record as saying he wanted this film to be a more commercial effort, a (one presumes he meant) boxoffice success, which may possibly explain all the explanations that come in the second half of the film. They're really not needed; Kelly's debut feature Donnie Darko (2001) didn't--the accumulation of fans that turned that film into a cult hit over the years provided their own. One understands that a wider audience may demand one, but a hit doesn't necessarily become a hit because it makes sense (the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, anyone?), it becomes a hit (and here I'm admittedly taking potshots at dark, shadowy figures) possibly because it offers something no other picture will offer, in a plot plausible enough and uncomplicated enough for the audience to easily follow.

Just have to say for the record that I'm not too impressed with the moral dilemma at the film's heart--Mr. Stewart (Langella at his most menacingly reasonable) late in the story puts forth the solution to the whole problem and it's pretty much what you'd expect, simple common sense (though to be fair, if you're at all aware of how people act or how the world is what it is today, that kind of sense may be simple but it's hardly common). A lot of Serling's Twilight Zone episodes were like that; what you enjoyed wasn't so much the tidy twist ending with its dollop of morality on top but the earlier half, when the protagonist was sensing that things aren't going the way they should be, and he can't quite figure out why.

One does enjoy the way Kelly seems to want to sabotage himself, providing not just sufficient information but too much of it, giving us a taste of horror then diminishing the impact of that horror by explicating much of it away (those alarming nosebleeds, for example, or that mysterious airplane hangar, or the motel with its unaccountably ominous swimming pool--which Kelly shoots from above the water were about to volcanically erupt). Part of him that wants to push the edge of the envelope further seems at war with the part of him that wants more people buying tickets to watch; the envelope-pusher seems to have won out, but at the expense of everyone involved, and you have to admire that--it has its own kind of crazed integrity.

First published in Businessworld 3.11.10


Maya said...

I wanted to enjoy this film much more than I did. Perhaps its most successful appeal here in the States is that it arrives at a time when the economy has taken such a downturn and more individuals than you might think would be willing to exchange a million dollars for someone's death; especially someone unknown. That has, in effect, become an American passtime.

But as such diversions go, it's delusional. The game with the box is rigged from the get-go because attitudes towards the family, and children, are rigged from the get-go.

I did like the music and the general suspense set up; but, felt the film failed to deliver.

Noel Vera said...

And it's simplistic. A million dollars or a death? Okay, supposedly unseen complications ensue--but we've seen this before, in Serling and The Monkey's Paw. The whole setup is simplistic, which isn't what you got from Donnie Darko.

joanna said...

I have to disagree with Noel Vera. It is definitely not simplistic, I mean not in the commun use of the term. As we all know, the best ideas come from the simple issues. It becomes more complicated when you find yourself with this almost ridiculos proposal, 1 million dollars if you press the button, just because something like that is so unlikely to actually happen. The point is that stupid, ridiculous, even simple situations can get you in a whole lot of trouble.

Noel Vera said...

Where I'm coming from is: if you're at all familiar with this kind of story, the story of the Deal with the Devil (as seen in many Twilight Zone stories, plus stories by Matheson, Bloch, Bixby, etc.), you know that you should just say "no" because come what may, the strings you don't see will trip you up. Simple situation.

Perhaps the challenge is presenting the situation in a more persuasive light--I mean in a way that you can see even someone who IS familiar with the subgenre might seriously consider the deal. In which case a mysterious strange with a fourth of his face gone presenting a box and an offer of a million dollars may not be the way to go. That's bad salesmanship.

Noel Vera said...

Or--hey, this is kind of fun--you can present it baldly, as in Diaz would ask Langella "this is one of those deal with the devil things, right, where I'm sure to lose my soul?" and Langella lays it out: "of course."

In which case the movie takes its time to present a case where she accepts knowing it's this and not caring anyway, or thinking she's figured a way out, and the suspense would be in finding out if she's right, or the box outsmarts her anyway. Now that's a more interesting movie.

Nicole said...

If you are familiar with Ayn Rand's conceptualization of altruism, and its evils, you should be able to plainly see this movie as a scathing attack on altruism. Amongst the lessons from this movie: 1) There is no such thing as a free lunch and 2) never, ever atone for someone else's sins.

Hints: See Mr. Stewart as a stand-in for Christ, the moral choice in water as baptism (two fingers is also the peace sign), the second form of control Stewart has is not only direct mind manipulation but guilt.

After all, Stewart did "see the light" after being struck by lightening and rising from the dead, no?

Noel Vera said...

Huh. Christ as some kind of seducer/enforcer? Interesting.

I can see what you mean, no not familiar with Rand--the film version of The Fountainhead was not encouraging. I don't see why altruism needs attacking, though--it's rare enough a virtue it doesn't need any help stamping out.

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Noel Vera said...

Facebook. Send me a message. Serious inquiries only!