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A Mystery That Will Push Buttons
on November 6, 2009
"The Box" is one of those films where a lot of adjectives are necessary. It's taut and suspenseful, but it's also metaphysical, ponderous, cerebral, unexplainable, and above all, preposterous. It goes in all different directions, sometimes caught up in circles, sometimes taking detours, sometimes going completely off course. It's a bizarre, unpredictable story of intrigue and paranoia, continuously twisting and turning, pushing the limits of comprehension with a slew of seemingly unrelated concepts; we begin with a button and a suitcase full of money, but this soon gives way to spiritual quandaries and sinister science fiction subplots, the latter of which involves radio signals from Mars, physical disfigurements, and hordes of mind-controlled drones with bleeding noses. There's even an ongoing social experiment, which could be indicative of a morality play.
Based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button" and its 1986 "Twilight Zone" adaptation, "The Box" takes place in Richmond, Virginia in 1976, and I honestly don't know whether or not that's a significant plot point. We meet Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), a cash-strapped suburban couple who awaken one morning to find a plainly wrapped package left at the front door. Inside is a black wooden box topped with an encased red button. Neither one knows what to make of it until receiving a visit from the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who, for as yet unknown reasons, is missing the left side of his face. If the Lewis' decide to unlock the box and push the button, he explains, two things will happen: They will be given $1 million dollars in cash, and someone they don't know will die.
Will one of them push the button? It's not as if they couldn't use the money. Norma, a literature professor, learned that her school will no longer provide free tuitions for children of the faculty, which doesn't bode well for her son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone). She also has a severely damaged foot in need of repair. Arthur, a NASA scientist involved in the creation of a Mars camera, is no longer being considered for the astronaut program because he failed the psychological exam. But the fact remains: Their financial security will come at the expense of ending someone else's life. Norma tries to reason that it may be a death row inmate. Arthur tries to reason that it may be their neighbor or a baby. Heck, it may even be himself or their son. How well does she know either one of them? How well do they know her?
I'm not going to reveal whether or not the button gets pushed. I will say that, from this point on, the story ventures into even stranger territory, befuddling itself with inexplicable paranormal occurrences, gateways that may or may not lead to salvation, deeply rooted scientific conspiracies, motel rooms with maps pinned to the walls, secret wind tunnels, and a brief discussion of Sartre's vision of hell. Who is Arlington Steward? Who are the people walking around with nosebleeds? If the box is capable of being programmed, then why are there no mechanisms inside it? What's the significance of a murder that has a man on the run? Does Arthur's Mars-related research have anything to do with what's going on? Does Norma's damaged foot?
As to whether or not all the above questions are answered, I'm not entirely sure. Writer/director Richard Kelly clearly has his own ideas about logical story patterns and how they should be followed. And yet, there is something to be said for creating a sense of apprehension out of nothing at all; if you can engage the audience in spite of a cumbersome plot, if you can keep them hooked by continuously building tension, then you've made a successful film. "The Box" may be a confusing mess, but it's also one of the most absorbing mysteries I've seen all year. The plot can be deconstructed any number of ways, but I suspect we're not supposed to learn so much as experience. And we do. For a film that's neither believable nor understandable, that's quite an achievement.
The ending unfolds in yet another display of twisted logic, and it culminates in a final shot that brings up an entirely new series of questions. What's the message "The Box"? That damnation can only be avoided by resisting temptation? That humanity must be willing to sacrifice for the greater good in order to survive? That existence as we know it is just a temporary state and death is a period of transition? Or is it that there isn't a message at all, that the whole thing is just an exercise in psychological thrills? I know Kelly is aiming for something here, but unfortunately, I have no idea what that might be. No matter - what I appreciated most was the film's ability to build suspense and maintain an air of mystery. That must count for something.