Sunday, 13 July 2014

Film Ramble: The Box

The Box was director Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly's third outing as writer and director, and his first proper go at adapting another writer's work; specifically the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson.  In Matheson's story a device consisting of a box with a single button on top is delivered to a suburban couple, who are told that if they press it two things will happen: they'll receive a large sum of money and someone they don't know will die.  In Kelly's version, the couple are James Marsden and Cameron Diaz, the device becomes the property of a grotesquely scarred Frank Langella, and the roughly two thirds of the film that involve Kelly spinning his own ideas off from Matheson's initial premise are one gigantic barrel of crazy.

It's always an embarrassing position to take in defense of a film to say that it benefits from being watched more than once.  The implication is usually of a plot so involved, so demandingly clever-clever and full of concealed detail that no single viewing could hope to unravel it.  Which, in my experience, is nonsense; I'm sorry, Primer, but if it takes ten viewings and a flowchart to follow you then I'd rather just watch ten other films.

Nevertheless, it's a fact that The Box gains from a repeat viewing.  And I say this in the least apologist fashion possible, in that I readily admit the problem is not Kelly's cleverness but Kelly's rather muddied storytelling.  Regardless, there's no denying that on a second go round the elements that seemed to come wildly out of left-field - hey kids, magic water teleporters that may or may not transport you via Heaven!* - are actually prefigured in as relatively sensible a fashion as they can be, the third act rises more organically out of the first two and many things that seemed random or throwaway begin to slot neatly into Kelly's moral argument.

Because, yes, The Box has a moral argument!  And because I've mostly been throwing faint praise so far at a film that I think deserves entirely genuine praise, let's just say that it's a damned interesting one.  It's also, perhaps, a clue to why The Box plays so much better that second time through: freed from having to  keep track of a winding (though not actually complicated) plot you're left with plenty of time to dwell on what it's all actually about.

Which is in fact a whole load of things, yet another reason it works better on that second viewing.  Because if you look for a single, unifying theme in The Box then you look in vain.  If there's one thing Kelly's filmography so far has proved it's that he has real trouble keeping himself pinned to just one topic.  If I had to pick a subject to say definitively that this is what The Box is about I'd have to go for free will ... much like Donnie Darko, thinking about it.  Is there such a thing as free will?  If we have it, are we capable of doing it justice?  Are we more or less dangerous for making our own decisions?  This is the kind of stuff that The Box throws about with cheerful abandon and, unlike in Donnie Darko, Kelly's answers are far from optimistic.

Again I realise I'm making The Box sound less than great, and once again I feel I should be pointing out how much it really is.  So let's put aside that thematic stuff for a minute and just list some things that it does terrifically well.  Aside perhaps from the Coens, I don't know that any director has nailed a period atmosphere as perfectly and unpretentiously as Kelly does here; he offers a gorgeously rich, lived-in evocation of the seventies.  The central relationship, heavily based on Kelly's own parents**, is an equally perfect portrayal of a flawed but loving couple, and Diaz and Marsden deliver creditable work.  It's generally a great-looking film, and maybe a little more so these days when every damn thing has to have that crushing teal and orange cinematography that was interesting for about five minutes a decade and a half ago.  In terms of projecting mood through image alone, Kelly is damn near up there with Lynch, and there are some deeply effective visuals in The Box.

And with all of that, I still feel like I'm apologizing a little.   Maybe that's just a representation of how far Kelly's star has fallen.  Southland Tales was a delirious car crash, the second film of a director drunk on his own hype, and The Box was probably pitched as something of a step back from that ledge.  On paper it must have looked like a fairly straightforward, moderately budgeted sci-fi tale with just a touch of the weird, and it's not hard to imagine Warner Brothers' chagrin when it turned out they'd signed on for a car crash of an only slightly different order.

Well, only on that second watch did it occur to me that I'd rather watch Kelly's car crashes then more careful work from the vast majority of directors.  Because whatever his failings, Kelly makes the exact opposite of what we routinely criticize most genre film-making to be:crazy, esoteric, personal movies full to (over)brimming with interesting ideas.  And while The Box is not his best, because let's face it he'll surely never make a better movie than Donnie Darko, it nevertheless is good and almost great work.

* Part of me thinks I should have marked this as a spoiler, but frankly if you're the kind of person who'd be put off by that plot tidbit then you're almost certainly not the intended audience anyway.

** In retrospect, I think the whole film gains hugely from this fact, and going in knowing it in advance.

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