Some movies lure you with the promise of dark revelation, only to lead you down a rabbit hole of obscurity. For the writer-director Richard Kelly, that pattern doesn’t represent a miscalculation in filmmaking — rather, it’s his goal. The Box, Kelly’s latest, follows his flaked-out cult nightmare Donnie Darko (2001) and his half-inspired, half-cocked apocalyptic satire Southland Tales (2006), and it’s an even less satisfying mess than they were.
Kelly certainly sucks you in, though. In this ominous yet vague sci-fi conspiracy thriller set in 1976 in Langley, Va., NASA researcher Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) and his wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz), receive a mysterious ”gift” on their doorstep: a wooden box with a glassed-in push-button on top. They are then paid a visit by Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a tall, gray-suited espionage type with a hideous burn scar that has eaten away the lower left side of his face. Steward explains the box’s function: If Arthur and Norma press that button, somewhere on Earth a person they have never met will be killed; they will also receive $1 million. Inevitably, they push the button. And just as inevitably, the consequences of this selfish (and, as the film presents it, all but irresistible) act spring forth in ways that they could never have imagined (or wanted).
It’s no coincidence that The Box plays like the world’s murkiest Twilight Zone episode. It’s loosely based on ”Button, Button,” a short story by Richard Matheson, who wrote some of the series’ greatest scripts, and it’s got a smashing late-’50s/early-’60s-flavored musical score that pulsates with Zone-ish film-noir dread. Yet the movie, as Kelly has adapted it, is also a grandiose paranoid fairy tale full of futuristic motifs that don’t lead anywhere except to their own increasingly entangled oddity. Kelly tosses in inexplicable nosebleeds, tony references to Sartre’s No Exit, a Cronenbergian theme of bodily disfigurement, an army of Body Snatchers zombioids, and a watery gateway to the next dimension. None of it quite adds up, and by the time the formidable Steward announces, ”I am in communication with those who control the lightning,” even Langella’s crisply controlled performance begins to seem bonkers. Kelly has talent, but for his next movie, he might try coming down to earth and forgetting about the people who control the lightning. C-