When it comes to the last fifteen years worth of hip, indie film I've drank so much Kool Aid that I might as well burst through a brick wall and yell "oh yeah!!!" There are over a dozen "cult" directors of whom I'm a zealous advocate: Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, P.T. Anderson, Eli Roth, the Coen brothers, John Waters, Martin Scorsese, Terry Zwigoff...
One cult, though, that I steadfastly refused to join was that of Richard Kelly, the auteur behind 2001's cult sensation "Donnie Darko." I first saw the film while in high school when it opened at the art house movie theatre where I worked. It was a moderately entertaining, weird little picture that came and went with minimal fanfare. Then over the years it built its cult following. By the time I was in college it was a full-blown sensation, with seemingly every artsy acquaintance of mine testifying to its brilliance.
I was principally annoyed because it was a film that was just weird but not great. It seemed to be the kind of work that my college film geek friends would have made if they had a $4.5 million budget. When Kelly's second film, "Southland Tales," emerged six years later in 2007 I didn't bother to make the effort to see it.
And so the "from the director of ‘Donnie Darko'" advertisement for the new science fiction thriller "The Box" was hardly an encouragement. But I was willing to suspend my doubts on the basis of the film's "Twilight Zone"-style premise, intriguing trailer, and the knowledge that the source of the film's story was a Richard Matheson (I am Legend) piece, not Kelly himself.
Set in the 1970s "The Box" features a young couple in suburbia. Cameron Diaz stars as Norma Lewis, a schoolteacher at an elite prep school. Norma is married to Arthur (James Marsden,) who is working for NASA and hopes to one day be an astronaut. They have a son named Walter and life appears to be perfect. Then things slowly start going downhill. A policy changes at Norma's school and it looks like her son's tuition will no longer be waived as a result of her being a teacher. Arthur is rejected from astronaut training.
It's then that a mysterious, polite stranger enters the couple's life. A box appears on their doorstep. Inside is another box with a glass dome over a button. Arlington Steward (Frank Langella who recently played Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon") is the one who left it for the Lewises. He's a man with a horribly disfigured face -- think Two-Face from "The Dark Knight" -- and a sinister proposition. The Lewises have 24 hours to decide if they will push the button or not. If they do then they will receive $1 million dollars and someone they do not know will die. If they don't then the box will be collected, reprogrammed, and the offer given to someone else.
Thus the couple have to debate if it's worth it or not to push the button. Whether they do or not is not too difficult to guess. And as one can suspect -- disturbing consequences follow.
There are plenty of elements of "The Box" to admire. First and foremost the film has a retro sensibility to it. Kelly seemed to style his film on a ‘70s sci-fi thriller. Everything from the slightly unnatural acting to the cinematography to the story itself makes "The Box" feel unlike a film released in 2009. This is tremendously refreshing -- and surprising.
Kelly's newest effort also has the strengths of "Darko" - some unique visuals and a sense of malevolent weirdness -- while lacking its crippling weaknesses - an incoherent, confusing plot and abstract, meaningless themes.
However, the film is hardly a knock-out. One of the side-effects of imitating a ‘70s style is a tendency toward dragging and slowness. And Diaz's and Marsden's performances are adequate, though hardly career-making turns. Langella, on the other hand, is electrifying. He owns the screen every moment he's on it -- and not just because of his disfigurement.
Will the Kool-Aid-intoxicated cultists of Planet Kelly get into "The Box" like they did "Darko"? Highly doubtful. But that's alright. While "The Box" is still filled with Darko-style weirdness and is unlikely to push him to the heights of mainstream success it should earn him a few more admirers.