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‘The Box’ turns out square

November 12th, 2009

 

The director and writer of “Donnie Darko,” Richard Kelly, didn’t live up to his own standards as he took on the challenge of the latest sci-fi thriller, “The Box.” The first third of the film seems to confirm that the audience is watching a very original suspense thriller that is based on easy-to-follow principles.

That feeling isn’t permanent. The movie consists of a traditional middle-class married couple with Arthur, played by James Marsden and Norma, played by Cameron Diaz.

Then there is the mysterious scarred stranger, played by Frank Langella, who arrives at their door and gives them a box – a “button unit” as the stranger calls it– that has a bright red button on top.

Here’s the moral dilemma: if they press the button, they will receive one million dollars, but somewhere in the world someone they don’t know, will die. They have 24 hours to choose. At the end of the day the stranger will come and pick up the box to deliver it to the next person.

This scene leads to the best line in the film: the stranger said, “I guarantee that the people I give it to next will be people you don’t know.”

While there are genius moments of either plot realization or camera shots, it just isn’t enough to make the whole story believable – especially with the part of the story they won’t tell us.

Cameron Diaz, who is more known for her romantic comedies such as “There’s Something about Mary” or “What Happens in Vegas,” shows that she can take on much more demanding roles than movie audiences have given her credit for. She is especially convincing as a mother and wife, panicking over the fate of her family. Even with her Southern accent, Diaz still manages to help carry the film.

James Marsden also gives an absorbing performance. He is enjoyable to watch near the end and never feels like he’s selling himself short in the genre.

Frank Langella, Oscar-nominee for his role as Richard Nixon in 2008’s “Frost/Nixon,” is the only truly innovative thing about the film. His sinister role as the scarred Arlington Steward could be considered too one-dimensional for some viewer’s tastes, but I saw a much more subtle performance that more fully radiated evil from the man.

 “I’m not a monster,” he said at one point. “I’m just a man with a job to do.”

This casualness is what makes him so terrifying as the movie progresses. Unfortunately, these spectacular performances did nothing to save the film’s ending. I can understand how it could be looked at as meaningful and ironic, but I didn’t think it was well done.

Kelly tries to make this film speak to us in some profound way at the end. It’s a movie that is obviously trying to bloat itself into cultural importance, but ultimately succeeds in being nothing more than a shoddy attempt at a mainstream art film.

“The Box” opened in theaters across the country last Friday and has made over seven million dollars since its release.