Director: Richard Kelly
Few new directorial careers have been as turbulent as Richard Kelly’s. His debut feature ‘Donnie Darko’ (2001) is one of the decade’s most beloved cult films, though I have to admit to feeling fairly agnostic about it personally. It made a star out of Jake Gyllenhaal and has not only acquired widespread critical success but also a healthy commercial life on DVD. At this point, the world was Kelly’s oyster. Inevitably, however, fate had different ideas. ‘Southland Tales’ (2007), a dystopian comedy-drama featuring actors of such dubious calibre as The Rock, Justin Timberlake and Sarah Michelle Gellar might have premiered at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but the general critical consensus was highly negative. And with Hollywood an unforgiving environment, Kelly has almost had to begin from scratch and rebuild his reputation.
‘The Box’ is Kelly’s opportunity to do so. Small-ish in budget as Hollywood thrillers go ($30m), it has several things going for it. First, it’s based on a well-known Richard Matheson (of ‘I Am Legend’ fame) short story. Second, Cameron Diaz is the film’s main selling point and no doubt she perceives ‘The Box’ as the chance to flex her acting muscles in a way most of the frivolous films she works on don’t. And third, the score is performed by members of the acclaimed Canadian band, Arcade Fire. Given these core ingredients, you’d be forgiven for brash optimism. Yet there’s something about Kelly that seems wilfully self-destructive. He’s clearly a talented film maker, not a generic studio hack, but he manages to handicap all of his films in some way, potentially fatally. There’s no way he’ll ever deliver a straight down the line product, which is fine as it shows a willingness to try something out of the ordinary. However, credibility seems to be the last thing he’s ever interested in, and ‘The Box’ suffers from this too.
The essential conceit of Matheson’s short story is well established – a mysterious man approaches a married couple and offers them a sum of money to press a button that apparently will result in the death of a stranger. Kelly takes this concept but develops it, taking it into several different directions that sometimes seem plausible, sometimes don’t, that sometimes seem well handled, sometimes don’t. Great film makers often leave plenty in their films unresolved, to allow us, the audience to interpret the film in whichever way we wish. This is usually because the film maker in question has left myriad possibilities for us to comprehend. Kelly too leaves more questions than answers, though not quite in the same way. For instance, Kelly adds an extra-terrestrial dimension to Matheson’s original idea – that Frank Langella’s character is testing the human race to consider whether it’s worthy of survival – the selfishness of the married couple suggests not, but the issue of NASA’s explorations upon Mars and the husband’s role in all of this is left mostly unexplored. The library sequence too is a complete WTF moment and even the loose explanation for it, much like the scientific basis behind ‘Donnie Darko’ is resolutely unconvincing. It’s almost as though Kelly has these ideas and works them into his film regardless of whether they seem to make any sense or not or even seem relevant to what has occurred previously.
That said, even given the flaws of ‘The Box’ and there are plenty, it’s a film that strangely stays with you. Even the most seemingly trivial incidents begin to make you think. Maybe this is because the film seems so half-arsed in many ways, that you kind of wish it was better so you deliberately force yourself to try to comprehend it. Or maybe that’s just my experience of it. Still, it’s the kind of film I’d perversely recommend. I don’t think it’s especially good and much of the inevitable backlash it’ll receive is warranted, but ‘The Box’ as made by a different director would have been a completely different film – completely mediocre, a safe package, all strands of the narrative loosely, neatly arranged to “make sense”. Kelly at least deserves some credit for delivering something unexpected. It’s a head-scratcher, sure, and probably the most bizarre Hollywood film of the year.