How far would you go to get a suitcase full of a million dollars? Would you kill someone? This is one of the questions at the heart of The Box, the new film from writer/director Richard Kelly, helmer of cult classics Donnie Darko (2001) and Southland Tales (2006). But it's certainly not the only question. The Box has a lot of things on its mind and a lot of tricks up its sleeve. It will keep you thinking and guessing up until—and likely past—the final shot, which is more than can be said for most thrillers these days.

The Box has one of the most intriguing, if deceptively simple, loglines of any movie this year: A normal family in 1976 suburban Virginia minds its own business at home until a strange box appears at the doorstep, along with a strange proposition by a mystery man. The mystery man, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon), wears tailored suits, has a horrifying face (half of it is missing), and changes the lives of Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) forever.

Cameron Diaz as Norma Lewis

Cameron Diaz as Norma Lewis

You see, the box at the doorstep has within it a button. According to Steward, if the Lewis family presses the button, two things will happen: 1) someone in the world who they don't know will die, and 2) the Lewises will receive $1 million in cash. Arthur and Norma have 24 hours to make the decision. Thus begins a compelling sci-fi melodrama—based upon Richard Matheson's short story (and 1986 Twilight Zone episode) "Button, Button"—that is full of moral dilemma, high concept philosophizing, pop culture pastiche, and oodles of Sartre references.

Nothing much can be said of the rest of the plot, save that it has something to do with NASA's Viking Mission to Mars and includes Kelly's usual cadre of quirky scientists, brooding youngsters, self-reflexive Americana (evinced in framed wall photos of President Ford, bicentennial footage of the World Trade Center towers, etc.), and obscure/outlandish sci-fi theories such as Arthur C. Clarke's "Third Law": "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Suffice it to say, The Box is out there and full of "like nothing you've seen before" imagination. If that sort of messy, unpredictable movie excites you as much as it does me, you're in for a treat. For those who prefer order and narrative cohesion, The Box will be a bit of a chore to sit through. The film overreaches, to be sure, taking us in enough multifarious directions to make even the most daring postmodern get a touch of vertigo. But if this sort of "all in" commitment to anarchy is the film's biggest fault, it's also its biggest asset.

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Frank Langella shows up with a creepy offer … and face

Frank Langella shows up with a creepy offer … and face

If you saw Donnie Darko or Southland Tales, you'll not be as surprised by what The Box turns out to be. Richard Kelly is a maker of cult films, by which I mean three things: 1) His films are not for everyone, 2) his films get better and richer with multiple viewings (most viewers won't get to a second viewing, however), and 3) his films are not as much about comprehensible plot as they are about riffing on big ideas, tone, and memorable images and characters.

As in Kelly's other films, not too much in The Box makes sense. Not much of it fits perfectly together under the magnifying glass of continuity. But pretty much all of it is fun to watch, and there are certainly big ideas to think about, and visceral, discomforting allusions to "other worlds" off-screen (Heaven? Hell? Mars?) that we only get glimpses of now. In each of his films—and perhaps especially in The Box—there is a distinct sense that the two hours we witness are only really scratching the surface of a much bigger, grander narrative. In this sense The Box is exactly the opposite of what its title implies: it's a film of impressive openness and possibility.

Arthur (James Marsden) and Norma consider their options

Arthur (James Marsden) and Norma consider their options

Though maddening chaos reigns in the plot, at least The Box is easy on the eyes. Steven Poster's elegant digital photography excellently mimics a '70s film aesthetic (in some ways similar to David Fincher's Zodiac), and the production design and costumes help complete an impressive period look that—with the help of a wonderfully dissonant, Hitchcockian score composed by The Arcade Fire's Win Butler—feels simultaneously retro and contemporary.

Kelly and his collaborators do a great job establishing a believably normal, mundane world that begins to rupture with the intrusion of inexplicable abnormality. Try as we might to keep up and process the things that are happening, it becomes clear that there are bigger things afoot. The actors in The Box, for example, are mostly hapless peons thrust into the cosmic "experiment" playing out all around them. Diaz and Marsden are fine as the everyman protagonists—and we do root for them. But they're never the true center of this film. That distinction would go to Langella, whose commanding presence and air of coy malevolence threatens to make The Box a one-man show. But in truth "the show" is much bigger than any of them.

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Director Richard Kelly on the set with Marsden

Director Richard Kelly on the set with Marsden

One might observe that the prevailing stylistic dialectic in the film is that between rigid boxes (boxed-in buildings, houses, frames, square cars, "the box," etc.) and more liquid, organic material (snow, water, pools), a dialectic also manifests itself in terms of the perfect and controlled (NASA, modernism, rationality) verses the imperfect and unknown (physical deformity, the supernatural). All of this translates nicely into the film's central thematic tension, between determinism (being "boxed in" by fate) on one hand and free will (a more open, unknown universe in which we are the agents and anything is possible) on the other.

Kelly navigates the heady philosophical terrain well, even if it's ultimately unclear exactly what he's trying to say. But at least he gets us thinking. The film reminded me of another "big ideas" sci-fi film that came out this year—Alex Proyas' Knowing. Like that film, The Box is a confounding sci-fi mystery on one level and a tortured existential treatise on the other. Both films ponder the nature of man in relation to God. Is there a God? Does he control us? For what purposes do any of us ultimately exist?

These are some questions that you might ask yourself while watching The Box. Or you might just be asking, "What in the world is going on?" Either way, it's worth the experience.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How is justice understood in the film? Do Norma and Arthur deserve what they get?

  2. At the end of the film, Norma's actions might be interpreted as sacrificial. Do you think her actions at the end made up for her decisions earlier in the film?

  3. There are some allusions to heaven or the afterlife in this film. What sort of supernatural hope is there in The Box?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Box is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images. There are a few scenes of violence and a general air of creepiness. There is no sex or nudity, not a lot of language, and no gore. It's not a "family" movie; thematically, it's probably best for teens and older. But there's very little objectionable content here.

The Box
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(10 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images)
Directed By
Richard Kelly
Run Time
1 hour 55 minutes
Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella
Theatre Release
November 06, 2009 by Warner Brothers Pictures
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