Richard Matheson's original short story, "Button, Button," was a nifty little morality tale about a couple faced with a peculiar opportunity -- if they push a button in a box, they'll get a sum of money but kill a stranger in doing so. That version of the story ended with the wife pushing the button and killing her husband, a man she didn't really know. As an episode of "The Twilight Zone" in 1986, the story ended with the couple paid off and assured that the device would then go to another couple to whom they qualify as strangers. Now, Richard Kelly's The Box takes that same basic premise and spins it into a mind-bender of the most baffling degree, starting out as another "Twilight Zone"-worthy variant but eventually reaching the outer limits of both patience and reason.
It's 1976, and times are getting tough on Arthur and Norma (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz). Despite being a key contributor to NASA's Viking mission, his application to become an astronaut is turned down; meanwhile, the tuition discount for their son that comes with Norma's teaching job is revoked. It's an ideal time for a box with a button to show up on their doorstep, and with it comes Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a horribly scarred but seemingly sincere man who lets the following proposition unfold: you have 24 hours to push that button, receive a million dollars in cash and cause the death of a stranger.
Suffice it to say, the button gets pushed, they get the money and a stranger dies. (We simply wouldn't have much of a feature if it were merely two hours of moaning about morality.) Arthur and Norma, though, start getting a bit more curious as to what they've gotten themselves into, and both their exact circumstances and the direct consequences only grow increasingly more convoluted from there on out.
At the start, Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) nails not just the time and place with some impeccable production design (the cars! the hair! that wallpaper!), but also the mood. The original score by some members of the band Arcade Fire is an instantly ominous work that stands among the year's best, and as Steward, Langella is not only quite convincingly disfigured, but also appropriately grave in his manner.
But then an increasing amount of characters are subjected to nosebleeds and moments of cryptic behavior. Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur C. Clarke get name-checked in equal measure. And our leads find themselves re-located with an increasing lack of continuity. Some of this is eventually explained away, if barely so, but what is supposed to suggest a state of discomfort and unease feels more disjointed and frustrating than anything, and what's meant to be menacing soon turns laughable.
It's creepy when a man silently arrives near a window and just out of frame, but less so when the same man appears to be gawking full-on like a peeping tom with lockjaw, only to pass around the outside of the house with a downright Pavlovian violin shriek matching his every step. A speech meant to elicit sympathy for two characters with similar deformities is rendered risible by a certain someone's persistently twangy accent. Another speech suggesting the logical sense of a box as a device is likewise sabotaged by leaden delivery. And the overall menace of a far-spread conspiracy is diluted by the fact that it comes off like the type of variation on Invasion of the Body Snatchers that one might cull from any college dorm room that has a rolled-up towel at the door and a blathering sociology major on the couch.
The experiment, in all its loopy glory, begins to matter more to Kelly than its subjects, and in this way, he sufficiently negates any stakes that we're supposed to have in these characters and any impact that their decisions might carry. What's worse is that Marsden and Diaz do share little moments of genuine chemistry throughout, usually wordless and often touching, that dare to defy all the mumbo-jumbo that surrounds them.
As is revealed quite early on, there's quite literally nothing inside the box itself. What truly bothers me is that there are glimpses of something inside The Box, bits of heart wrapped inside a headache, soaked under so many riddles and so much water, and surrounded by plenty of bloody tissues.