“I like mystery. Don’t you?”
Man, seven years have done The Box a lot of favours. It’s jumped up at least two stars since I first saw it and watching it today, in 2016, every weird and puzzling little flourish feels less like a misstep and more like a gift. In 2009, The Box was an absolute head-scratcher; apparently another sign that Richard Kelly was destined to be remembered as nothing more than the one-hit-wunderkind behind Donnie Darko. The metaphysical elements and melodramatic performances didn’t appear to mesh and all the heady science fiction concepts and visuals felt drastically at odds with the perfect simplicity of Richard Matheson’s pulpy source material. I really didn’t like The Box when I first saw it. It pissed me off. I didn’t get it. With every rewatch though (this is my fourth viewing) all the stuff I disliked about the movie has slowly become thrilling to me.
How exciting to see a filmmaker take this story so seriously that he actually imbues it with countless autobiographical elements (Kelly’s father worked for NASA in the 70s like Marsden’s character, Diaz’s disfigurement is directly inspired by Kelly’s own mother) and tunes it all to his own sensibility and literary interests. This is a Richard Kelly movie! And, along with Darko and especially Southland Tales it is a film that takes time to unfurl and reveal itself. Once all the weirdness and bug-outs click into place, the films actually turn out to be pretty straight-forward, coherent and, yes, emotionally satisfying. Kelly can definitely be accused of taking a real fucking roundabout way of making most of his points. Like, some of this stuff really doesn’t need to be so convoluted, but it makes for a more interesting movie right?
Considering The Box is Kelly’s first (and so far only) studio movie, as well as how much of a trainwreck Southland Tales was both critically and financially just a few years before, it’s pretty remarkable how much hard sci-fi and leftfield ideas he managed to shoehorn into what is, on the surface, a very commercial property. Frank Langella with a burnt face, Cameron Diaz with a disfigured foot, floating water coffins, space and time portals, kids who are cruelly rendered deaf and blind, not to mention the ballkicker of an ending – it all goes a long way to make this movie extremely memorable and distinct. I haven’t seen many mainstream studio thrillers this year that come anywhere near The Box in terms of sheer imagination and audacity. It’s a B-movie through and through, but in Kelly’s eyes, that doesn’t mean it can’t have intelligence.
I stuck this film on as part of my annual programming of alt-Xmas movies (and it’s a great Christmas movie by the way) but found myself totally thriving off of all the imagery, ideas and ambition within it. It’s a dumb movie about a button that kills people, walking braindead people with nosebleeds and countless hammy lines, but goddamn does it have a head on its shoulders and formal, storytelling control to match. Such an eye-opener. What I wouldn’t give to have a new Richard Kelly movie every few years. Come on 2017, can you give me that at least?