Movie Review

The Box

A jarring Pandora-like ‘Box’

James Marsden and Cameron Diaz star as a married couple with a moral dilemma in “The Box.’’ James Marsden and Cameron Diaz star as a married couple with a moral dilemma in “The Box.’’ (Dale Robinette/Warner Bros. via Associated Press
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 7, 2009

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“The Box’’ almost squeezes the non-anatomical part of your stomach that tenses up in moments of dread. Considering how long it’s been since a movie’s gotten near that part of my stomach, that’s not an insignificant “almost.’’ James Marsden and a twangy Cameron Diaz, looking like a Pan-Am flight attendant, play Arthur and Norma Lewis. A package appears on the doorstep of their 1976 Virginia home. It’s a small wooden chest topped with a red game-show button. Not much later a man calling himself Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives with instructions but without a section of his face (he looks like one of those life-size anatomical cutaways).

If the Lewises push the button, a stranger will die, but they’ll receive a million dollars. After some deliberation, they go for it. The resolve Diaz uses to smack the button is the same used by people hitting the Easy button in those Staples ads. But Kelly could have stamped his button with “hard.’’ The consequences are strange and brutally inhuman. The Lewises have no idea why suddenly they’re being followed and watched. Neither do we. The movie leaves Norma and Arthur in order to follow their suddenly somnambulant babysitter’s stroll through some creepy motel called the Galaxy. There’s also a detour for a domestic crime scene across town and doings at NASA, which just rejected Arthur’s astronaut application. It’s all alluringly random. Something ominous is going on, and the pleasure of this movie is that we can feel it more than we can entirely understand it.

This is a freak-out along the lines of “Rosemary’s Baby,’’ “Don’t Look Now,’’ “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’’ or “The Shining,’’ where a director’s simple understanding of where to put a camera or when to cut away radically changes how an image affects you. When Arlington tells Norma that he is calling from outside the house, there’s a cut to man, looking into her kitchen window, who is not Frank Langella. The camera follows him from window to window as he circles the house. The average commercial horror movie would have found a way to julienne this sequence into a thousand cuts, complete with sound effects and inserts of images that have nothing to do with it. Presented the way it is in “The Box,’’ we see what Norma sees, and the scene is all the more chilling for it. There’s another creepy, entertainingly orchestrated chase through the Boston Public Library - the city stands in for wintry Virginia.

Writer and director Richard Kelly drops Isaac Asimov’s name and uses Jean-Paul Sarte’s “No Exit’’ as an existential jumping off point. He clearly sees his movie as an homage to a particular sort of science-fiction thriller. Every scene emits that ominous 1970s glow in which even the drabbest shots look as if they were filtered through a glass of chardonnay. And the score by Owen Pallet and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne is both an impersonation of a good horror score and the real thing. Kelly based the film on a 1970 short story by Richard Matheson called “Button, Button,’’ which was turned into an episode of “The Twilight Zone,’’ when the series returned in the 1980s.

The grim shots of TVs, cars, houses, and buildings suggest “The Box’’ isn’t just a button you push, it’s a depressive philosophy: we are weak, desperate, expendable. (There’s a redundant speech that spells this out.) There’s a fine line, the movie says, between cosmos and cabal. But Kelly hints at the possibility of spiritual rapture, too. Death, however it comes, is a liberation from the bodily box.

Kelly also made “Donnie Darko’’ and the scandalously misunderstood “Southland Tales,’’ and, after three films, it’s fair to call him a paranoia artist. “The Box’’ is the work of a visionary flirting with commercialism after having so grandly flouted it with “Southland Tales.’’ He doesn’t give in completely. Several trips to the megaplex might be required for “The Box’’ to make complete sense.

THE BOX Written and directed by: Richard Kelly, adapted from the short story “Button, Button’’ by Richard Matheson

Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 118 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (or thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images)

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