In Theaters: The Box
Based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button," the same way neon Velcro tear-away pants are "based on" button-fly jeans, The Box does little more than nick Matheson's premise on its way through director Richard Kelly's formidable looking glass. Matheson (now 83), who removed his name from the 1985 adaptation of his story for an episode of The Twilight Zone because they messed with his ending, may have to be sedated when he gets a load of Kelly's operatic, involuted head-scratcher. Both high-flown and packed with knowing kitsch, The Box is a genre pastiche and an allegorical hash that fails as often as it succeeds in articulating its one core, coherent point: we are as moral as our options.
Having scaled back slightly from Southland Tales' aesthetic and allusive overdrive, Kelly moves his viewfinder from the near-future (Southland's then-imminent 2008) to the recent past. Set in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia in 1976, The Box is filled with personal details, including a father (Arthur, played by James Marsden) who works at NASA and a mother (Norma, played by Cameron Diaz) with a disfigured foot. Their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) is a student at the private school where Norma teaches, and Arthur is sweetly laboring over a prosthetic made with state-of-the-art materials to ease the hitch in his wife's step. It's all as cozy as could be, and it seems that is precisely why they have been chosen as the next contestants on Exactly What Kind of Person Are You, Anyway?
A box wrapped in plain brown paper is left on their doorstep early one morning with a note that one Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) will be by that evening to follow up. Inside the box is a "button unit" (its design identical to that used in the Twilight Zone episode), a bright red buzzer set under a glass dome and perched on a wooden pedestal. Back in 1976, before all we did was push buttons, all day long, "the button" still meant pretty much one thing, and while the anxiety and paranoia around who could or would push it was not at its '50s/early '60s peak, the idea that we could all be instantaneously affected by the flick of a finger still loomed large in the collective imagination. Kelly manages to re-capture some of that freighted symbolism, as Norma and Arthur sit at the kitchen table puzzling over the offer Steward makes them: push the button and I'll give you one million dollars, but someone somewhere -- whom you don't know -- will die.
What if it's a little baby, Arthur frets. What if it's a murderer, Norma counters, and the idea that the constraints of our moral spheres can be delineated both quickly and absolutely flashes between the couple, who live comfortably but embody the middle class certainty that things could be much, much better. Stanley Milgram's psychological experiments proved that it took only four dollars (and one authoritative mind-eff) to get otherwise good people to give someone they didn't know a 450 volt electrical shock, and Langella's commanding bearing, despite having half of his face turned inside out by a bad burn, has a lot to do with his persuasive powers. "He was so charming," Diaz marvels, in a chewy Virginia accent. She slaps the button down in a moment of exasperation, and that sets into motion a series of events I won't pretend to understand.
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