What if someone gave you a box containing a button that, if pushed, would bring you a million dollars... but simultaneously take the life of someone you don't know? Would you do it? And what would be the consequences?
The year is 1976. Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) is a teacher at a private high school and her husband, Arthur (James Marsden), is an engineer working at NASA. They are, by all accounts, an average couple living a normal life in the suburbs with their young son... until a mysterious man with a horribly disfigured face appears on their doorstep (Frank Langella) and presents them with a life-altering proposition: the box.
With only 24 hours to make their choice, Norma and Arthur face a momentous moral dilemma. They soon discover that the ramifications of this decision are beyond their control and extend far beyond their own fortune and fate.
If there's one word that can best be associated with filmmaker Richard Kelly it's bafflement.
People were baffled by his debut feature, the eventual cult classic 'Donnie Darko,' due to its elliptical plot elements and insistence on using overtly knotty sci-fi components. Still, most thought that for a debut movie (as ungainly as it was), it was ultimately ambitious and provocative and his synthesis of pop culture elements (television, comic books, Stephen King novels) felt fresh and inventive; with a little more finesse he could really be on to something. Bafflement be damned, even those who criticized it admitted that he could be a bold new filmmaker.
Then came 'Southland Tales.' Troubled, even more awkward and ungainly than 'Donnie Darko,' it wasn’t so much a sophomore slump as a sophomore implosion. Screened, once, at Cannes, never to be seen again, he finally drummed up additional funding, finished some visual effects, and completely re-jiggered the movie. Substantial performances by Kevin Smith and Jeneane Garofalo fell away, turned into blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos. Pop star Moby released an entire album of material that he wrote for the 'Southland' score, convinced the movie would never be released. Critics savaged it, baffled by its narrative dead-ends, lame humor, tone-deafness and metaphysical ambitions, but a few bold souls embraced the movie for what it was - messy, occasionally wrongheaded, but undeniably loveable. (I am one of the 'Southland' super-fans. It's one of my most-spun discs.)
After the disaster that was 'Southland Tales,' it seemed very unlikely that Richard Kelly would ever make another film, much less a moderately budgeted studio movie with marquee movie stars. Everyone was pretty much, well, baffled. Based on a Richard Matheson short story that was filmed earlier as an above-average episode of the 1980's iteration of 'The Twilight Zone,' Richard Kelly's third movie is just as uncompromisingly weird and off-kilter as his previous two (you can take this as a plus or a minus, depending on your sensibilities) you may experience something besides bafflement (but there's plenty of that too); you might actually feel something that resembles an actual emotional response.
'The Box' is set in Virginia in 1976. Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) is a schoolteacher, married to Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), who works at NASA, where he is outfitting the Mars rover with a new camera. They have a small son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) and are living beyond their means. One morning, near Christmas, a small package is delivered on their doorstep. In it is a box, with a flat red button. The next day, elegant villain Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), hideously disfigured (think Harvey Two-Face) arrives at the house to explain the crux of the movie: if you push the button, someone you don't know will die, but you will receive $1 million dollars. After laying down this extreme moral quandary, Steward says that she has 24 hours to decide.
This was more or less the plot of the short story and the 'Twilight Zone' episode and serves as the movie's first act. If you don't want to know whether or not they push the button, then don't read any further, but a decision is made before the 45-minute mark. If you are going to bail, let me give you a quick rundown of the rest of my review: I loved the movie. I loved it. Yes, it's goofy and unnecessarily convoluted (hallmarks of Kelly's filmography) but it's so fantastically gripping and clever and fun. If you are only interested in the amount of body parts that lay strewn about at the end of your scary movie, look elsewhere; if you want some genuine, under-your-skin eeriness, this is the movie for you. It's the rare spooky movie that haunts you long after it's over.
Okay? Still with me? So they push the button. The movie from then on out is some kind of bizarre chase/detective/sci-fi epic in which the fate of the entire planet depends on the decisions made by a handful of fallible, utterly human characters. When all is said and done, will you understand everything about it? Probably not. But again, bafflement comes with the Richard Kelly package. For the first time in his career, though, Kelly has made characters you really care about and the film's ending is utterly heartbreaking and (of course) really, really weird.
A lot of this has to do with the performances of Diaz and Marsden. They bring some great depth to the characters, modeled, incidentally, on Kelly's parents. Diaz's character, for instance, has a mutilated foot from an X-ray accident years earlier. Marsden gets rejected from the astronaut program due to a failed psychological exam. These are people who feel trapped, but they do love each other, which makes their decision to push the button even more heartrending. And as much as the decks are stacked against them, they could just have not pushed the damn button.
'The Box' isn't for everyone. Its deliberate pacing, with long, winding shots that border on the Hitchcockian will put off people who are fans of the quick shock-cuts so popular in today's genre films; its embellished oddball flourishes (you will soon learn what a 'water coffin' is) some will find off-putting; and it's lack of definitive answers could cause viewers to scream in defeat. But you know what? Richard Kelly is an uncompromised filmmaker who grows and changes with each film. As much as I loved the film (and I really did: I think it was one of last year's best, most accomplished movies), the general bizarreness of the movie could put any future Richard Kelly joints in jeopardy. At some point he may have to move before bafflement, no matter how pleasant and enjoyable that bafflement may be.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 25GB disc is Region "A" locked. It's a two-disc set, with the second disc being a DVD copy that also contains the film's digital download. The disc automatically plays, with a commercial for the majestic accomplishment that is the Blu-ray format, followed by a teaser for the steam punk guilty pleasure 'Sherlock Holmes.' Then the movie begins.
The VC-1 1080p transfer (aspect ratio 2.39:1), even on this 25GB disc, is a straight-up stunner.
In my longwinded review of the movie, I didn't make mention of its luscious, wholly immersive period detail. This wasn't a movie that hit you over the head with its detailed commitment to authenticity. It just was 1976. On this transfer, you can really soak it all in - the print on the family's kitchen, the detail of Diaz's paisley ascot, and the seediness of the post-war roadside motel. It all looks amazing.
Also, the visual effects really pop on this transfer. Between Langella's burned off face, accomplished with digital trickery, the aforementioned water coffins, and the digital augmentation to turn back the hands of time to bring everything back to the 1970's (much like David Fincher's 'Zodiac') and make things, well, snowier, the effects are wonderful. And what makes them all the more wonderful is how seamless and unnoticeable they are. While it's cool when you see a dinosaur stampeding through San Diego, it's pretty show-off-y. It takes real skill to do impressive shit that just blends into the background.
The movie was shot on video (inspired, again, by 'Zodiac'), and the transfer appears to be a digital-to-digital transfer, without a film intermediate. It seems damn near perfect. There are no imperfections, grain, popping, or anything else. The transfer is also free of buggy technical issues. Skin tones look good, depth is outstanding, and black levels are deep and inky.
And while some may complain about the movie's apparent "softness," they aren't acknowledging that the movie's deliberate lighting/aesthetic scheme (complete with blown out light fixtures) is meant to mimic that feathery look that most films from the 1970's had. It's another genius layer and adds to the overall authenticity of the movie.
Equally impressive is the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix.
In a movie where a premium is put on atmospheric uneasiness, 'The Box's mix excels. All of the film's many varied set pieces - the undulating columns of water, a high school production of 'No Exit,' a chase through a crowded library, a NASA test site - are all vividly rendered and given lovingly detailed treatment. The entire sound field is nicely utilized.
There's a lot of dialogue in this film, which is wonderfully reproduced and well-prioritized, even in busier crowd sequences. But the more action packed sequences (like when a cop kicks down a locked door, or a gunshot) are rendered vividly and dynamically. There aren't any audio issues either, no hiss or pop or anything like that. It's as smooth and clear as the video transfer.
Also, special mention should be made of the film's score by Win Butler, Owen Pallett and Régine Chassagne, members of the rock band Arcade Fire. The deliberately Bernard Hermann-y score was one of last year's most haunting and memorable and here it sounds like a million bucks. I particularly love the cue that accompanies Frank Langella's character; strange, affecting stuff. The soundtrack, full of classic 1970's jams, sounds pretty stellar too (or maybe that's interstellar?)
There are also French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks on this disc, along with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
In a commendably bold move, Warner Bros. has relegated many of the special features to Blu-ray-only exclusives. As such, the only special feature the standard DVD and the Blu-ray disc share is a brief biographical piece on Richard Matheson.
'The Box' is a twisty-turny psychological thriller that, no matter how weird it gets, is firmly anchored in a relationship between two average, loving people. If you're a fan of the bizarre, worlds-within-worlds filmography of Richard Kelly, this is a no-brainer. It's got lovely video and audio and a great collection of mostly Blu-ray-exclusive bonus features. I loved this movie and fully recommend it. Even if you're not a fan of the promising young filmmaker, it's certainly different and suspenseful enough to entertain on a Saturday night. This is a button well worth pushing.