Norma and Arthur Lewis, a suburban couple with a young child, receive a simple wooden box as a gift, which bears fatal and irrevocable consequences. A mysterious stranger, delivers the message that the box promises to bestow upon its owner $1 million with the press of a button. But, pressing this button will simultaneously cause the death of another human being somewhere in the world; someone they don't know. With just 24 hours to have the box in their possession, Norma and Arthur find themselves in the cross-hairs of a startling moral dilemma and must face the true nature of their humanity.
Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s 2001 debut feature, earned him a cult following although the opaque drama earned just $1.3 million in the US. Southland Tales, the writer-director’s second movie, bombed worldwide.
So will it be third time lucky for Kelly in his quest for mainstream success with The Box? I strongly doubt it. This sci-fi thriller suffers from a complete lack of logic and woeful miscasting of the lead roles—and, worse, is almost totally devoid of tension.
Inspired by Button, Button, a 1970s short story by Richard Matheson, the film flounders on its preposterous premise: What would you do if someone offered you a million bucks to press a red button in an otherwise empty box within 24 hours, knowing that, as a result, someone, somewhere, whom you didn’t know, would die?
Anyone with half a brain would tell the crackpot making this offer to shove the box where the sun don’t shine, but no, not our protagonists, schoolteacher Norma (Cameron Diaz) and her NASA engineer husband Arthur (James Marsden).
They’re short of money, you see, because Norma has just learned she won’t get the employee discount to enable her to keep their son in the private school where she works, she’ll have to postpone reconstructive surgery on her mangled foot, and Arthur’s application to become an astronaut is rejected after he failed the psych test.
So they toy with taking up the offer from the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), an elegantly-dressed, courteous chap with a horribly disfigured face. 'I assure you I am not a monster, just a man with a job to do," he intones gravely. The next day, Norma impetuously presses the button, and, across town in Virginia, a woman is shot dead.
Steward duly delivers the loot and departs to tempt some other hapless couple. Not once does this well-educated, middle-class couple ask him if anyone died as a result of Norma’s succumbing to temptation. Is that plausible, even in 1970s America? Hardly.
The rest of the movie is an incoherent mess filled with clues, red herrings and non-sequiturs. Random people keep getting nosebleeds, there’s a creepy student, a tormented babysitter, inept efforts by Arthur’s cop father-in-law to investigate these peculiar events, and some psychobabble about the 'path to salvation."
As for who employs Steward and the purpose of his mission, well, all is revealed, sort of, but little of it makes sense. In essence, Kelly appears to be using a muddle-headed morality play to remind us we’re all responsible for the consequences of our actions. Like, who needs reminding?
Affecting an annoying Southern accent, Diaz struggles to make Norma seem remotely interesting or worthy of sympathy, despite the predicament she precipitates. Marsden lacks the authority to be believable as a NASA engineer and is barely adequate as a husband and father who’s faced with a cruel dilemma. There is almost zero chemistry between them, which makes it hard to believe they’re a loving couple. That old pro Langella is suitably creepy and menacing, but his efforts are wasted.
To reflect the 1976 setting, Kelly and his cinematographer Steven Poster drained much of the colour, resulting in a cold, flat and uninviting look—rather like the film itself. And was wallpaper of that era really so ugly?