WITH HIS FIRST TWO FILMS, Richard Kelly carved out a pretty unique niche in American cinema. I'll suggest that his funny, creepy, mind-bending Donnie Darko is pretty much a work of genius. His follow-up, the much-loathed Southland Tales, is decidedly not a work of genius—but, for what it's worth, it is what would happen if Philip K. Dick and the cast of Saturday Night Live dropped acid together, and then Buffy and The Rock and Justin Timberlake crashed their party. (The bewildering result sure as hell wasn't to everyone's taste, but it was to mine.) Writer/director Kelly doesn't make films that're easily classifiable, or films that you can recommend to strangers without fear of violent reprisal—but he does make films that're unlike anything else out there, and his latest, The Box, is no exception.
The Box is based on a 1970 short story by Richard Matheson, "Button, Button," which was also adapted into a Twilight Zone episode during that series' so-so '80s revival. The setup: Early one morning in 1976, Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and a more or less entirely horrible Cameron Diaz) find a mysterious box on the stoop of their suburban home. The box has a single button on its top, and soon enough Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a creeptastic dude with a burn-mangled face, presents Norma with a "financial opportunity": If she and her husband press the box's button, Steward says, two things will happen. First, someone they don't know will die; second, the Lewises will get a million dollars.
Aside from Langella's enunciation of the phrase "one million dollars"—which, alas, is reminiscent of the fruity smirk of Dr. Evil—much of the dialogue that results from the couple's moral quandary has the tone and stiffness of a Philosophy 101 discussion: "What is it to really know someone?" Arthur dutifully ponders, as Norma dreams of all the ways a million bucks could improve their lives. (Despite the fact that Arthur is some kind of rocket scientist at NASA and drives a gleaming Corvette, and despite the fact that Norma teaches Sartre's No Exit at a private school, we're told that the Lewises live paycheck to paycheck.)
So the Lewises wring their hands, and the stage is set for a straightforward tale—by Kelly's standards, at least. But those expecting that Kelly, after the critical and commercial catastrophe of Southland, will scale things back on the bizarro scale are gonna be surprised. Shortly after its initial premise is introduced, The Box spirals into an overwhelming clusterfuck of sci-fi surrealism that's as imaginative, fascinating, disorienting, and frustrating as anything in Darko and Southland. Soon enough, NASA's Mars Landers get involved, and that Arthur C. Clarke quote about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic gets repeated a few times, and weird water portals start opening up, and zombie people start getting nosebleeds, and scientists start muttering phrases like "the altruism coefficient," and there's some Eve-in-Eden-style blaming, and plenty of alluding to No Exit, and a foot prosthesis becomes almost as important of a prop as the box's get-rich-quick button.
Much of the stuff in The Box is the sort of obtuse, intentionally vague shit that usually makes me want to shove a screwdriver into my ear—but, somehow, Kelly makes it work. As bizarre as things get in The Box—and as bizarre as they got in Darko and in Southland—I can't ever shake the feeling that there's a method to Kelly's madness, that he knows exactly what he's doing and he's gonna keep on doing it, whether his audiences like it or not. (It's a profound understatement to note that the crowd I saw The Box with did not, shall we say, care for it.) The Box surges forward in uneven bursts; the dialogue is often the blankly straightforward sort one would expect from, well, No Exit or a Twilight Zone episode; and on the rare occasions we're given solid plot information, it's clumsily delivered in expository chunks; unlike the darkly comic Darko or the preposterous Southland, there's little humor here to flavor the weirdness. Most of the time The Box is just weird—creative and original and entertaining as hell, but, at least on first viewing, equally inscrutable. While I can't blindly recommend it—I'm not a huge fan of violent reprisal—I will say this: I'll be seeing it a few more times, and I'm already looking forward to whatever Kelly cooks up next.