Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” has one of those neat, irresistible premises that Matheson, a frequent contributor to The Twilight Zone, is famous for. A mysterious man brings you a box with a button on the top. He tells you that if you push the button, someone you don’t know will die, and you will get a serious amount of money. What would you do? Matheson says he took the idea from a psychology class in which his wife was enrolled. The story, therefore, is a psychological chiller with an almost jokey twist ending. Writer-director Richard Kelly, who made the modern cult classic Donnie Darko and its unfairly maligned follow-up Southland Tales, expands the story considerably in The Box, which tosses in NASA, nosebleeds, Jean-Paul Sartre, and a diagram of something called the Water Coffin Triptych that looks a lot like the diagram of time travel from Donnie Darko.
The Box, Kelly’s first film to get a wide theatrical release, has been said to be his bid for mainstream credibility. “See,” he might be saying, “I can make something comprehensible with mass appeal.” The best thing about the movie is that, if Kelly was really aiming to please the average popcorn-munchers, he fails. He can’t help it. There’s so much stuff here linked to his earlier films, particularly Darko, that multiplex audiences’ heads will be swimming with references to water as foreboding portals and countless other eldritch suppositions. This is certainly the strangest movie to get a release in 2,000-plus theaters in quite some time. As a Kelly fan, I enjoyed the hell out of it — its brooding mood, its visual tribute to films of the ‘70s (the movie is set in 1976), its flamboyant score by three members of the Canadian indie-rock band Arcade Fire. Your mileage may vary, and probably will.
Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are the young couple faced with the conundrum of the button; Frank Langella, a quadrant of his face burned away, is the man who delivers the box. I couldn’t be happier about Langella’s late-career comeback, and here he creates a solemn figure that seems to stand for something beyond good or evil. Langella’s manner is very dry and precise; he leaves the emoting to Diaz and Marsden, and Kelly extracts one of Diaz’ better performances. She plays a private-school teacher who introduces Sartre to her students, and I was reminded of the deadpan English teacher Drew Barrymore played in Donnie Darko; all Kelly needs to do now is cast Lucy Liu as a teacher and he’ll have the Charlie’s Angels trifecta.
Like Kelly’s other films, The Box fairly demands to be seen more than once, or as part of a Richard Kelly marathon. This writer-director has firmly established his own techno-mystical emphasis, his own fatalistic mood; his work and his viewpoint consistently fascinate me. How is The Box as a thriller? Well, it goes places that will make many viewers want to get out and walk — it reminded me a little of last March’s Knowing, which handled its blend of suspense and sci-fi far less successfully. I have a feeling that anything Kelly does — a western, a romantic comedy — will be run through his filter of inscrutable astrophysics jargon. If he can continue to get studios to give him money, he will continue to be an artist to watch.