Well, would you? Would you press a button if told you would receive $1m cash, but someone, somewhere, you didn’t know would die?
Richard Kelly’s third film is ostensibly his most straightforward. For starters – unlike Donnie Darko and Southland Tales – it has a 22-word premise. It’s three acts too (the calm, the storm, the debris) and for the first two, as Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) accept the dosh-for-a-death offer and start living in fear, Kelly’s thriller is tight and credible, making viewers feel complicit in the couple’s decision.
Style-wise, the writer/director effectively ticks off the key fantasy, sci-fi and horror elements of the film’s major influence The Twilight Zone (an episode of which was based on the same Isaac Asimov story). He also grounds it in a neighbourhood so normal nobody would imagine anything untoward occurring. Like E.T. Or, for Kelly fans, Darko and its idea of extraordinary things happening to ordinary people.
But Kelly being Kelly, while The Box starts simply, the last half-an-hour tumbles into a labyrinth so elaborate it takes GPS (or a second viewing) to find a way out. The oddness is hinted at early on with offer-giver Mr Steward (Frank Langella) and his funny face. But with spectral water towers, Marsden tumbling through a ceiling and brain-mashed morons walking up a big hangar, the ending turns an audience-friendly flick into a headfuck. Some will like it, perching on the edge of their seat until the climax. Others will be muddled.
Still, The Box should be heralded as Kelly’s return to form after the overly ambitious Southland. He directs Diaz’s best performance since Being John Malkovich, orchestrates a library centrepiece among the year’s best scenes and writes with refreshing intelligence for 12A popcorn fodder, asking questions about identity, family and control that invite viewers to, gasp, think. It doesn’t break the heart like his debut, but how gratifying to see the filmmaking poise and promise hinted at eight years ago back with force.