There are times when you can just see a train wreck about to happen. Once such instance might be the occasion of actually seeing two trains on the same track, heading on converging courses without sufficient room in which to stop. Another such instance might include hearing the phrases "Richard Kelly" and "made another movie" in the same sentence, without the presence of a negative.
You know, I was hoping to be wrong. I hoped, if not expected, for the film to be a cool bit of offbeat mystery-making. I will give it this much credit: it contains none of the smartass, idiotic satire that has been found in most of his previous work. Kelly wrote and directed the low-budget indie hit Donnie Darko, and has been aggressively shoveling away the goodwill it brought him ever since. His sophmore film Southland Tales brought a whole new depth to the term "sophmore slump," with its too-cool-to-make-sense sendup of SoCal culture, featuring a dozen ex-Saturday Night Live performers and about fifty plots, most of which died of exhaustion before ever crossing the finish line. Kelly had been set to direct the sci-fi mystery flick Knowing until Southland Tales became such a money pit of embarrassment, though his departure didn't seem to help that film too terribly much. The Box is not the shameless display of stupidity that his last one was; that would be a feat. But Kelly, with only three films under his belt, is starting to feel like a low-rent M. Night Shyamalan with none of the actual commercial success.
The film is inspired by the short story Button, Button by Richard Matheson, previously adapted into an episode of the 1980s incarnation of The Twilight Zone. A mysterious and disfigured man arrives at the home of Norma and Arthur Lewis, a couple in their thirties who claim to be barely scraping by despite the fact that Arthur is a NASA scientist, and gives them a box featuring a single red button. If they press it within the next twenty-four hours, two things will happen: someone they don't know will die, and they'll be awarded one million dollars in cash. The couple puzzles on the point of the whole affair and notes that the box seems to have no mechanism. Norma eventually pushes it, seemingly to just get it over with more than for any other reason. From this point on, things start to unravel, both for the pair of them, and for those of us watching this soon-to-be mess.Those who recall the Twilight Zone episode might remember that the story fit quite comfortably within a half-hour time slot. So how do you stretch a thirty-minute plot out to feature running time? Answer: you don't. You instead just make up a lot of new shit. The man returns with the suitcase of money, and things quickly start going awry. Strangers start staring at and following Norma and Arthur. The NSA starts sniffing around NASA, asking for use of their wind tunnel. The disfigured man is hinted at possibly having come back from the dead after a lighting strike. Noses bleed copiously. A creepy student from one of Norma's classes shows up at a party to laugh at Arthur in a creepy way before totally vanishing from the story with his presence never being explained. Mysterious portals made of water appear. Arthur finds a book possibly written by Arlington Steward, the mystery man himself, which is full of bizarre pictograms. Some sort of grand puppet master is alluded to, but never seen. If any of this sounds familiar, it's because you've already seen Donnie Darko, from which Kelly freely pillaged most of the ideas not contained in the Matheson story. It's one thing to have a distinct style, but it's quite another to just keep using the same fucking things over and over. Somewhere in here, the two trains meet for a long and langorous kiss.
I'd be hard pressed to find anything here that works. What the fuck is this film supposed to be, anyway? If you looked behind the scenes, Darko was a pretty stupid film, too, but it wore a decent mask; the film superficially comes across as an ode to youthful idealism and achieved a nice spooky tone reminiscent of early '80s Spielberg. This one seems to want to be some sort of morality tale, yet its moral makes absolutely no sense. What are the button boxes meant to test, morality or sheer gullibility? In order to test ethical choices, the participants must actually be convinced that the scenario is genuine. On top of this, after receiving the cash award, our poor beleagured couple exchanges not one word of conversation on the subject of whether or not their actions may have just taken a human life, as if the entire supposed moral quandry didn't even merit any real examination. At one point long after the material from the original short story has been long since left behind, Arthur is confronted by three identical portals of water and forced to choose the one that doesn't lead to damnation. Exactly what the fuck is this supposed to test? This isn't a moral dilemma, it's some kind of cosmic Let's Make a Deal. By the time the story finally gets around to explaining just how the magic box works, the only thing the audience learns is that the box couldn't possibly work like that. It seems to advocate some sort of bizarre predestination, but again, if predestination is on the table, then any test of conscious choice becomes utterly meaningless.
I'm pretty much done with Richard Kelly at this point. The tracks are mangled, the boxcars lie smoldering in a heap at the bottom of a ravine, and it wasn't even any fun to watch. Much like Knowing, this is the product of a filmmaker who can't tell the difference between mentioning some highbrow idea and actually discussing it rationally. I'm more or less convinced by now that any enjoyment I ever got out of Donnie Darko was the result of some complete, inexcusable mistake on my part.
-review by Matt Murray