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Time and patience required to unpack The Box

by Glen Baity

If you love Donnie Darko, you almost certainly have one thing in common with your fellow Darko fans: You’ve dedicated hours to watching and discussing it.

In fact, you might know the film so well by now that you forget just how confusing it was upon first viewing, what with the giant bunnies, time travel and dead-thennot-dead characters.

Writer-director Richard Kelly followed his cult hit with cult flop Southland Tales, a neo-Repo Man head trip that was every bit as dumbfounding as his debut, only more so thanks to an extra hour of plot (is “plot” the right word? Maybe “onscreen activity” is more accurate) and about 40 additional characters.

Kelly returns with his third film, The Box, which is comparatively leaner than Southland but no less confusing. If you’re after a straightforward narrative, and if you’re not ready to commit Darko levels of time to figuring it all out, stay far, far away.

Of course, it’s understandable that you’d get taken in by the film’s ostensibly simple premise. Suburbanites Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden), quite out of the blue, receive a mysterious box on their doorstep. Inside: a button mounted on a wooden cube.

The mysterious benefactor, Arlington Steward (the incomparable Frank Langella), explains that pressing the button has two distinct consequences. First, a person they do not know will die. Second, they will receive a cash payment of $1 million. They have 24 hours to make their decision.

The ramifications of that decision defy any expectations you might have. What starts as an interesting “Twilight Zone” episode ends in a weirder place than any Rod Serling ever imagined. Another filmmaker would have just deemed the button a magical object and left it at that.

Not Kelly, who spends the rest of his film explaining the origins of the button, its true purpose and the peculiar Mr. Steward. Subjects explored include — but are not limited to — alien intelligence, the nature of free will, lightning strikes, hive minds, pan-dimensional travel and the concept of universal human interconnectedness (eagle-eyed viewers will even catch a tantalizing nod to Darko’s “Philosophy of Time Travel”).

Kelly’s way of addressing all of these topics, as usual, is to dump them into a pot and stir. As such, you’ll catch notes of all of the above and more, but be prepared for an oblique, often frustrating experience. Not that that has to be a bad thing — Donnie Darko is great, but it subjects its audience to plenty of purposeful disorientation. So does Kelly’s latest, but I wasn’t as immediately

taken with it as I was Darko. Upon first viewing, The Box is every bit the mess that his previous two films are, but it doesn’t have the sly humor that makes the weirdness palatable (no Sparklemotion here, sadly).

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have good elements — it does, thanks to sympathetic performances by Marsden and Diaz, who share some lovely moments in front Kelly’s soft-focused lens. Langella is also great as the serene-yet-intense puppet master.

But is a likeable cast enough? For me it wasn’t.

After two hours of unrelenting weirdness, I wasn’t fired up to watch the film again so I could pick up clues. Frankly, the last half-hour feels like an endurance test, and I was just happy to have made it through.

The bottom line is that a single viewing of The Box barely allows the viewer to scratch the surface, so if you’re planning to watch it, take an attentive friend and clear your evening for some post-film discussion. Then go back and try to pick up what you missed. If you’re not ready for that kind of work, it’s better to avoid opening The Box altogether.

To comment on this story, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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