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The Box


Don't you dare touch my box

dir: Richard Kelly

This is not a good movie. It’s not even mediocre. It’s just incompetent.

It’s not as utterly godawful at his last awful foray into moviemaking, which was the truly dire Southland Tales, but whilst it’s not as asinine, it’s not much better. It’s staggeringly not much better.

Richard Kelly came to prominence with Donnie Darko, and since then has been squandering whatever goodwill the flick engendered with a much too forgiving audience. Honestly, these other films he’s been making are so eye-rottingly rotten that it makes me think Donnie Darko was a fluke, a goddamn fluke.

Maybe the elements that he was able to put together coherently the first time have never been able to coalesce since then. I know this is a review of his latest shitfest The Box, but bear with me for a second: I think you can see the seeds of his failure even back in Donnie Darko, by comparing the theatrical cut with his director’s cut.

That’s what it comes down to: Kelly doesn’t know how to edit his own flicks. Of course, the companies hire editors to actually edit the films, but the directors (and often producers) can end up sitting in at every stage to ensure their singular ‘vision’ gets carried through.

The director’s cut of Donnie Darko spends an inordinate amount of time explaining elements of the story that don’t matter, no-one other than Richard Kelly cares about, and that don’t make sense anyway. The most important part is that these sections don’t add anything, because they’re for arbitrary elements anyway.

Ignoring the poorly rendered story, the grainy and dulled visuals and the actors who clearly have no idea what they’re doing, it’s the editing which really takes the viewer out of the experience here.

A long time ago, there was a Twilight Zone episode called 'Button, Button', and it dealt with a mysterious guy knocking on a couple’s door, and presenting them with a dilemma: here’s a box with a button on it; if you press the button someone, somewhere whom you don’t know dies, and you get a million dollars. If you don’t press it, nothing happens and you get nothing.

The couple agonise over the decision, the pros and cons, the rationalisations and justifications, and finally make their decision. The clincher, twist or punch-line of the episode, coming as they always did on the Zone, right at the end, is the remark from the mysterious man that the box, with its button, will now go to someone else, someone that this couple doesn’t know.

The implication is clear, but I’m leaving it muddy, deliberately. It worked, concisely, and it delivered that queasy gut-punch that was the show’s trademark, leaving you with that sinking feeling accompanying realisation. This was a half-hour tv episode, which actually, with ad breaks, amounts to 22 or so minutes.

Richard Kelly, who obviously saw this episode at some point in his life, became obsessed with it, and thought “I shall turn that into a two-hour film, and include shit from my own life, and give an explanation of how the box works, and who the mysterious guy is. That’s the ticket!”

My point is, for Kelly to do what he’s done, means he completely missed the point of why the original episode worked. And (it’s more likely, since I’m sure he’s a highly intelligent guy, that he does grasp this obvious truth), in a remarkable time-wasting exercise, he decides to elaborate upon the parts of the story that are the least meaningful and least rewarding.

Imagine The Dark Knight redone so that the majority of the film’s focus was on the tailor who makes the Joker’s pants. Imagine Lawrence of Arabia remade so that the focus of the film was on a guy reading a newspaper article about Lawrence of Arabia and eating some crumpets with his tea. Imagine the entirety of Fight Club from the perspective of one of the pigeons that shits all over the Mercedes in the car dealership during Operation: Mayhem.

Perhaps I’ve belaboured the point a bit much, but the first mistake Kelly makes is believing there’s anything interesting about his obsession with who the mysterious guy might have been, where his powers come from, and who he might have been working for.

I’m being unfair: maybe those questions could have been interesting, and the answers even more so, but they sure as shit aren’t in this flick. It also makes the primary mistake of ignoring the fact that the primary couple’s dilemma should be the paramount source of conflict, not the external forces that govern the box itself.

Set in Virginia during the ugliest part of the 1970s, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) are an extremely wealthy couple with a bowl-head haircutted son, but they have money problems. So when a guy missing a quarter of his face (Frank Langella) due to a lightning strike, presents her with a box and a choice, she makes a choice. Then a whole heap of other absurd shit involving water portals, nosebleeds and laughing possessed people happens to justify what happened initially.

It turns out that the explanations, profoundly mysterious at first, are ultimately quite retarded. Sure, I often hanker for genuine mystery in a movie, since most movies are so flat out predictable I invariably know what’s going to happen just from seeing the title and the cast list. That’s not to say that I’m oh-so-smart: It’s got far more to do with the production line commoditisation of movies and the risk-aversion of the studios.

The problem is that the mysterious aspects in this story aren’t engaging, aren’t interesting and ultimately mean nothing. The one part that might have been interesting: the concept of some alien intelligence issuing humanity with an altruism test to see whether humanity is worth saving or deserving of destruction, would be interesting if Richard Kelly understood what altruism is.

I have little problem spoiling this flick since no-one should watch it, and it’s woeful, truly, but if someone does want to watch it unspoiled, they should probably hit themselves in the head with a clawhammer instead, or not read the following remarks since I have no compunction against my usual prohibition in this instance. People need to know how bad it is to prevent anyone profiting from their naivety.

In the first ‘test’, the very boring and tired looking Norma makes a decision because she’s essentially been coerced into it. The circumstances leading to her choice are engineered by ‘those who control the lightning’, which ultimately is, the Martians.

I wish I was making this shit up. These lightning chaps and chapettes randomly possess people who do little more than turn their heads at the same moment in order to look at Arthur or Norma whenever they walk in to particular places. Sure it looks creepy, and is mostly ripped off from the one thousand versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but what does it mean apart from looking eerie? Literally nothing, it’s just done for no other reason. Why is Arthur then presented with three watery portals, two of which lead to eternal damnation, one of which leads to his bedroom? Because it looks cool and meaningful to Richard Kelly.

Not being content with presenting these people with a choice that’s no choice at all, Langella’s stupid character comes back later and sets up an even more forced and coerced decision, essentially convincing one member of the couple to kill the other unless they want their son to grow up like Helen Keller: deaf and blind.

How does that test altruism? If I hold a gun to your head, and compel you to fuck a pumpkin, and you fuck the pumpkin, how have I proved that, by inclination, you’re a pumpkin-fucker at heart? All I’ve proved is that, sufficiently threatened and in fear for your life, you’d do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do.

There’s no choice in any of this, and the least affecting part is that we can’t, at this stage, care about the outcome. Why should we care if any of them live or die, when Martians are killing people randomly, getting other people to kill people, possessing people for no reason other than making their noses bleed, all for no real discernible purpose in ways that don’t register because we either never started caring or stopped caring fifteen minutes into the movie?

It’s not like James Marsden or Cameron Diaz could do anything with this, but they’re mediocre regardless of how asinine the plot is. Frank Langella played Nixon a few year’s ago, for Christ’s sake, and very well, I might add, but he can’t do much here either. I can put the blame squarely at Richard Kelly’s feet, who is not a good director of actors. He’s an ideas guy who shouldn’t be making films with people in them. Maybe animation is the go.

My darling partner, who I saw this with, wanted me to quote her as saying: “It's not just boring, it's annoying.” And even though I didn't find it as annoying, I still didn’t care, and so I can’t argue with her verdict.

Profoundly avoidable.

4 times I really desperately hope Richard Kelly figures out some alternate career stream before Martians kill him for his cinematic sins out of 10

“I have an offer to make. If you push the button, two things will happen. First, someone, somewhere in the world, whom you don't know, will die. Second, you will receive a payment of one million dollars. You have 24 hours.” – The Box