Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When "The Box" Gets Inside Your Head

Last weekend, I finally watched The Box. This is Director Richard Kelly's third film. He became "the director to watch" with his cult-hit first film Donnie Darko (released in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, which may or may not have affected its dismal box office tally). Shortly after I saw Donnie Darko in 2004, I was impressed that the director was younger than me. As I learned more about him, he struck me as the kind of guy who would have been in my social circle in high school: his father worked for NASA, he's a creative type, and he wasn't afraid to be himself. I did not like his film on first viewing, but some scenes stood out as brilliant and his selection of songs indicated that we have similar tastes in music. Upon repeated viewings, I became a fan of Donnie Darko. Its a quirky film that doesn't make complete sense, but somehow, it all works. The scene that most impressed me was what Kelly calls "the movie within the movie": the scene which is choreographed to Tears for Fears "Head Over Heels." Its brilliant, what can I say? That one scene pretty much condenses the entire film into the span of the shortened version of that awesome 80s song. There's no doubt about it...Richard Kelly is a child of the 1980s.

He took forever on his follow-up film, Southland Tales. In the meantime, he wrote the script to Domino (a stylized, though dull film). When Southland Tales finally made it to theaters in the fall of 2007, I was excited enough to see it on opening weekend. Though it had some interesting moments, I thought the film was the biggest slap in the face that any director could do to his fans or to his studio financiers. The film is quite simply, a colossal mess. Nonsensical, outlandish, expensive, uninspiring, and repeating some of the same themes that Darko touched on (namely some kind of strange metaphysical occurrence that's not really explained). Many reviews ripped apart this film, particularly with the over-abundance of former Saturday Night Live has-beens. There was one outrageously hilarious scene, though: an SUV coming alive after a thunderbolt struck it, then proceeding to mount and mate another SUV. I believe that this was the first time any movie featured auto-erotica. Straight from the demented mind of Richard Kelly!

I walked out of the theaters wondering, "What the fuck was that?!?" Was Kelly giving it to the man? Was his response to the way his baby Donnie Darko was dumped in theaters after 9/11 (after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival much earlier in the year) to make an expensive, nonsensical film? Does he even want a long career in Hollywood? If he and I were friends, I would have a serious talk with him. I'd say, "Look, dude, I know you got some fucked up ideas, okay? And you just want people to pay good money to see some of this weird shit floating through the cosmos of your brilliant mind, but there's nothing wrong with a good story or making the kind of film that draws an audience. There's a reason why people flocked to Spielberg!" I want to see Richard Kelly have a long career as a director in Hollywood...but making expensive bombs is not the way to do it. Better to make a smaller film that focuses on character development. Smaller is good. Prove yourself with that.

Because of the rip-off that Southland Tales was, I was very hesitant to pay good money to see The Box in theaters. I could wait until DVD. I'm glad that I did. The movie is creepy and gets under your skin like some kind of nasty parasite. That's not saying that its a bad movie, but actually, a surprisingly good one. Certainly more downscale than Southland Tales. In fact, The Box has a very M. Night Shyamalan vibe to it. This is the movie that Shyamalan's The Happening aspired to be. Both films give you the major creeps while watching it, but when both films end, The Box had a brilliant one while The Happening did not. Its interesting to note that Richard Kelly does M. Night Shyamalan better than Shyamalan does!

If you have not seen The Box, please do not read this post after the picture below. It contains spoilers and I don't want to spoil the ending of the film for you. In fact, I would recommend that you watch this film for yourself...then come back and read this blog post. The ending makes The Box one of the most conversation-worthy films I've seen in the past year. I wanted to talk to someone about it after watching it (well, after shaking the willies off of me first!). Even if you think this film might not interest you, please do not deny yourself the chance to get your mind blown by the profound nature of this film...and reading any further will deny you that opportunity. Consider yourself warned!

SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!

Please DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you have not seen this film!!!

Now...about The Box. The premise is quite simple. James Marsden and Cameron Diaz play a middle class couple in Virginia in 1976, and they have a son (around 10 years old?). Marsden's character works at NASA. Diaz is a school teacher who is missing toes on her right foot, which her husband is working to fix with some kind of special prosthetics. Marsden aspires to be an astronaut, with the hope of being one of them selected for the manned mission to Mars.

One morning (before sunrise), their doorbell rings and a mysterious package is left on the front porch. Inside this package is a strange looking box with a button on top of it and a cryptic message. Later, a scary looking man who is missing the lower left side of his face (actor Frank Langella is enough to give anyone the creeps, but the deformity only heightens the tension) appears with the proposition: If you push the button, someone you don't know will die and you will receive $1 million cash, delivered immediately. They have 24 hours to make a decision.

It wouldn't be much of a movie if the couple declined the offer, now would it? Of course they push the damn button. This sets a chain of events in motion, as the husband tries to find out who the mysterious man is and what is the meaning behind the strange offer. He also learns who died around the time that his wife pushed the button. This part of the film goes into some strange, creepy journey...where people just stare without speaking, or having strange nosebleeds, or walking Zombie-like into watery looking portals. The film builds slowly, one creepy element added upon the next. There are allusions to the National Security Agency (a sinister organization in its own right) and of lightning strikes and the Mars program and even the afterlife.

In one of the big reveals, the viewer learns that "the box" is offered to many people and people keep failing the test. Passing the test means not pushing the button, because it means that you value human life more than your own greed. If humanity cannot give up its greed, the box will continue to be offered until EVERYONE refuses to push the button. In the second big reveal, the couple that pushed the button on "the box" find that their son is kidnapped and is held in an upstairs bathroom. The mysterious being has both blinded and deafened him so that he will never be able to see or hear his parents (or anything else) again. The parents are presented with a second choice. They can allow their son to live that way for the rest of his life or the husband can kill the wife. By choosing this self-sacrifice, the boy will regain his vision and hearing...and the $1 million will be deposited into a trust fund for him.

That's the brilliance of the movie. The first choice reveals a person's greed or humanity. The second choice pays for the consequence of the greed. In the third and final big reveal, the couple decide that their son matters more than the life of the wife/mother and she is killed just after another couple made the choice to press the button on the box for their $1 million. A vicious cycle! The profound cyclical nature just hits the viewer with a "WOW!!!" Holy cow. What a mind blowing experience!!! I love it when that happens. Its rare when something just blows your mind, but this is that film. That's why despite the creepy elements, the ending made the entire premise brilliant. A perfect commentary on humanity today. Essentially, the message I got from the film is that our greed is killing us, though we don't know it. Because we don't truly know ourselves. That's what the choice was meant to convey...by choosing greed, we end up killing someone we don't know: ourself! Self-knowledge is important. Value human life, especially a stranger's life, no matter how tempting the money is.

Though the film bombed in theaters, I really hope that Richard Kelly's directing career is still secure. I would love to see a more straightforward film from him, but I have a feeling that he likes murky metaphysical ideas that go over the heads of most American filmgoers. At any rate, he and I really need to collaborate on a story someday. One of my dreams is to work for him as a co-screenwriter or even a personal assistant. Its rare to meet someone who is not afraid to think of ideas that go beyond the realm of what most people are interested in discussing. Good job, Kelly! I can't wait to see what you have planned next.

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