Movie of the Month: The Box (2009)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee, Alli, and Boomer  watch The Box (2009).

Brandon: “Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it. You sit in your home staring at a box. It erodes your soul while the box that is your body inevitably withers, then dies, whereupon it is placed in the ultimate box to slowly decompose.”

No, that’s not lyrics to a Bright Eyes song or a page ripped from your 15 old self’s poetry-filled diary (or both if you’re Conor Oberst). It’s an explanation from The Box’s mysterious villain Arlington Sterward when he’s asked the simple question, “Why a box?” Steward’s rambly, heavy-handed response (delivered expertly by character actor Frank Langella) is a typifying example of writer-director Richard Kelly’s filmmaking style in that it’s both far outside any semblance of normal human communication and it represents a nonstop torrent of ideas that Kelly can’t help but spill onto the page all at once. His debut film, Donnie Darko, was a weird 80s throwback sci-fi horror that’s just bonkers enough to serve as art film training wheels for disgruntled teens (it worked for me, anyway), but also stylistically restrained in a way Kelly hasn’t been since. His follow-up, the sprawling & delightfully incomprehensible Southland Tales, is a punishing assault of strange ideas that plays like a big budget adaptation of a crackpot conspiracy theorist’s 4,000 page manifesto on the state of the modern & supernatural world. The Box, Kelly’s most recent film to date, splits the difference.

As Kelly put it himself, The Box was an attempt “to make a film that’s incredibly suspenseful and broadly commercial, while still retaining [his] artistic sensibility.” I’d say it’s almost successful in that way, tempering Kelly’s bottomless wealth of bizarre ideas with a familiar realm of cinematic tones that lands somewhere between Hitchcock suspense and the Spielbergian throwback horror of titles like Super 8 & Stranger Things. I honestly believe The Box is his best work to date. However, if Kelly thinks that this overwhelming tale of deadly ultimatums, alien invasions, mind control, interdimensional gateways, and spiritual ascension has “broad commercial appeal” he’s gotta be out of his fucking mind (and I’m sure there’s more than a little truth to that). Audiences hated The Box. It’s one of the few films to ever receive an “F” Cinemascore, which is typically a very forgiving grading system. It flopped financially in 2009 & has since been largely forgotten by time. General audiences have been known to hate a lot of great art, though, and I think that there’s an argument to be made that this film deserves to be recognized as such.

The first half hour or so of The Box might actually be the work of “broad commercial appeal” Kelly believed he was delivering. The film opens as a retelling of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Button Button” in which a young couple receives a mysterious box that prominently displays a giant button and comes with an even more mysterious offer: if the couple pushes the button someone they do not know, somewhere in the world, will die & they will receive $1million cash. Long story short, the couple pushes the button, receives the cash, and are informed that the box will now be passed onto a new couple, someone they do not know. Like the best of The Twilight Zone, “Button Button” is a tight, efficient story of supernatural dread that reinforces the value of The Golden Rule: treat others as you would wish to be treated. Kelly faithfully delivers that tight, controlled life lesson and then, leaving broad commercial appeal behind, explodes it into a galaxy of strange ideas that explore the identity of the man who delivers the box (or “the button unit” as Steward puts it”), the question of whether or not humanity is an enterprise worth preserving, and theories on what could possibly exist beyond our basic understandings of reality & mortality. All of these heady topics are interjected with whatever weird ideas pop into Richard Kelly’s head from moment to moment – say, lightning as a means of alien-to-human communication, motel pools as gateways to other worlds, entire armies of It Follows-style demons (“employees” of Steward), etc. etc. etc. It’s all perfectly overwhelming and I enjoy every frame of it, but I can’t fathom a world where it could’ve been a runaway commercial success.

Richard Kelly seems very much interested in trying to convey the vague menace of the unknown here, an overreaching ambition that leaves a lot of character development by the wayside in favor of otherworldly ideas & never-ending suspense. As a result, a lot of the film’s dialogue & character motivations can fall just on the campy side of eerie. It can also be a little difficult to care about any particular character’s fate, including the film’s central family, since they remain near-strangers for the entire runtime as they try to piece together exactly what’s happening to them. As unnerving as The Box can be, its lack of compassion for its characters & its subversively campy humor can play just as thick as Cameron Diaz’s godawful Virginian accent (she really is laughably bad in her lead role as the matriarch).

Britnee, how do the corny acting & unclear character motivations play into the film’s nonstop assault of spooky ideas for you? Are they a distraction or do they add to the film’s strange, off-putting appeal?

Britnee: First of all, when I found out that The Box was going to be the September Movie of the Month selection, I got it confused with the 2015 film The Gift. Jason Bateman graced the cover of The Gift, so I kept waiting for him to make an appearance in The Box, which, of course, he never did. It turns out that movies about mysterious boxes are more popular than I thought.

The insanity that is The Box should come with a warning label. Those with severely high blood pressure or epilepsy should never watch this movie because they will end up in the emergency room before the film is over. The constant twists and turns are just too much to handle, but I loved them all. The acting of just about every character, especially Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, really contributes to the movie’s wacky charm. Diaz’s performance as one of the film’s main characters, Norma Lewis, really sticks out for me. It’s really as bad as it gets, but her horrible accent, unconvincing attitude, and missing toes all come together to make The Box a hell of a good time. As Brandon mentioned previously, it’s difficult to give a damn about the fate of any of the film’s characters because viewers aren’t given the opportunity to really connect with them, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed not worrying about whether or not Norma and Arthur would survive the terrors brought on by the box because I was able to focus my attention on the all the confusing supernatural happenings.

There were many times in the film where I thought the movie was concluding, such as when Arthur goes through his chosen portal in the library and ends up in his bedroom with Norma, but then the film continues and the story develops even more. Alli, did you find the constant twists in the film to be irritating or did you enjoy them? Was there any point in the film where you thought it should’ve ended?

Alli: It’s hard to say when a movie this in-over-its-head in a bizarre concept should have ended. I think maybe somewhere on the writer’s desk someone should have come in and asked about some plot holes and maybe talked Kelly out of some of them. But as you guys are saying, they’re all a part of this movie’s goofy charm. After a certain point of being jerked around I kind of gave up and just let it take me along for this strange little ride and part of me even felt like it could have kept going, honestly. There were so many more questions than answers. Not that I think I could have stood Diaz’s accent for another hour, but I really wanted to know more about these employers of Mr. Steward. I want to know more about this film’s philosophy as well.

A thing this movie brushed over and possibly unintentionally made a argument about was free will. In the end, did the new family being offered the box have a choice at all? He clearly knew that everyone he offered these options to were going to choose the easy way out, if you can call it that, otherwise some sort of transmitter would actually have to be in the box for him to know. I know there’s an argument to be made for supernatural surveillance, but it seems like he and his employers knew all along what human nature would lead these people to do. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a heavy-handed monologue about that.

But then again, this is a movie that only left me half satisfied. We’re vaguely introduced to aliens but we don’t learn much more about them other than they want to prove humans are unworthy. We’re given some suspense but nothing too bad, except for like Brandon said the occasional It Follows moment of a stranger being outside the window. We’re given an ideal suburban family in an ideal suburban town that’s slightly claustrophobic but not quite. Everything seems to fall just barely short of hitting whatever target he was aiming for. Boomer, is there anything you really wish had been expanded or clarified that wasn’t?

Boomer: Honestly, I had the opposite feeling. Although I definitely like the spookiness of the Steward hive mind followers and the general impenetrability of concept that is a hallmark of Richard Kelly’s work (like Brandon, Donnie Darko served as a kind of Baby’s First Jacob’s Ladder for me as well), there’s a certain simplicity to the existential dread of the original Richard Matheson short story that is absent here. In the short “Button, Button,” the story ends with the enigmatic Steward retrieving the button in a box from the protagonists, departing as he “reassures” the couple that they should not worry, as the next recipients of the box won’t be anyone that they know, with all the implications thereof. Does that mean that there is a direct link between the immediate recipients of the button and the previous button-pushers, or just a chilling reminder that their karmic comeuppance will come someday, without warning? It’s classic Matheson that way, and I adore the story (it’s adaptation in the eighties Twilight Zone revival has a different, more obvious ending, and I, like Matheson, don’t care for it; he went so far as to have the story idea credited to a pseudonym). There’s a quietness and intrigue to the original story that this film, which uses the original story less as a template and more of a jumping-off point for spiraling but utterly watchable madness, doesn’t possess.

That having been said, there were some things that I would have been interested to see more of. I was particularly intrigued by the use of realistic grounding in the life of the family before the box arrives, like the discussion of Norma’s foot injury and Arthur’s spacey aspirations. While it’s true that much of what makes the film captivating is the unexpected paths that it takes, I would have preferred to see the story retain that level of grounding throughout rather than grow exponentially more wild. It’s as if there are two films here, and I would have liked to see a Kelly flick that had the alien test plot and a second, different film that followed the mundane lives of the Lewises after the button is pushed, as they navigate the quandary of the immoral actions taken as a result of Steward’s visit. As it is within the film, everything that follows Norma’s impulsive push that affects them is an external force, not an exploration of the fallout of committing such an act, which would have been a more interesting film to me.

As far as other elements that I would have liked to see more of, Deborah Rush is criminally underutilized here as she was in her previous MotM appearance in Big Business, and every time I see her in any role I wish she had more to do. I also would have liked to know more about what Steward was like before he became the host for the alien entity that is sitting in judgment of humanity; was he chosen because of a similarity between his pre-possession personality and the ideas of the Hive? Was he the opposite? It could have been interesting to see the dichotomy between his former self and his new one, especially as a mirror of the change in personality between some of the button-pushers we saw pre- and post-button mashing; an objective correlative metaphor is never a bad idea, and could have illustrated the difference in the self that occur as a result of chance (Steward) versus those that follow deliberate action (the Lewises). What do you think, Brandon? You mentioned that the campiness and spectacle of the movie are its big draws for you; would you feel that you would enjoy it more, or at least as much, if it had been more of a character piece than a moderately coherent, not-quite-on-target, effects-heavy scifi fable?

Brandon: I’m a little amused by that question because I assume Kelly believes he was delivering a character piece, or at least his version of it. I don’t think stripping the film of its excess of The Day the Earth Stood Still-modeled sci-fi ideas on testing humanity’s worthiness through complex alien puzzles would necessarily improve its narrative in terms of entertainment value, but I do agree that the film starts weaving some interesting threads about the Lewises that might’ve lead to some truly powerful character-based moments had they been given enough room to breathe & develop. For instance, the family’s early financial troubles, born solely of their apparent disinterest in living within their means, is played merely as motivation for their activation of the button unit, but could’ve instead lead to genuine dramatic tension were Kelly interested in building it. He also suggests an interesting spousal dynamic when the couple negotiates the button unit’s terms & conditions and Marsden’s scientist-dolt husband asks, “What is it to really know someone? Do you know me?” I wouldn’t trade those lines of inquiry for the ludicrous sci-fi spectacle we’re gifted with instead, but I do think they would’ve been better received if they had been more fully developed, ideally without sacrificing the sci-fi backdrop that contrasts them.

The problem with fitting the character study elements and Kelly’s immense idea flood into a single vehicle might be a question of form. In some ways a two hour feature film isn’t nearly expansive enough to encompass everything The Box wants to contain. The film takes the idiom “biting off more than you can chew” as a direct challenge & a mission statement, an approach that doesn’t always sit well with a movie-going audience. I feel like the property’s ideal self would be as a prestige television series on AMC or HBO, a medium that would fix several immediate problems like allowing more room for grounded character study, giving each out-there sci-fi idea time to breathe instead of running through them all at once, forgiving a little bit of the television-grade acting choices made by Diaz & Marsden, etc. I’m imagining it like a Twin Peaks or a Welcome to Nightvale, where monster-of-the-week alien threats (or in this case, alien puzzles) would all inexplicably occur in a single town & follow a small family unit as they struggle to make sense of the phenomenon. The first episode of The Box: The Television Series would be the same “Button, Button” remake the movie uses for a launching point, except that it would end with the couple pushing the button in a cliffhanger, waiting for the story to be picked up at the beginning of episode 2. As I’ve said, though, a large part of the fun of The Box for me is in being overwhelmed by its wealth of ideas in such a short amount of time & I think there’s a value to experiencing all of that otherworldly absurdity in a tightly paced, cinematic punch that is somewhat lost when you’re, to risk referencing something so of-the-moment twice in one conversation, binge-watching all 8 hours of Stranger Things over the course of a week.

Speaking of the sprawl of sci-fi ideas included here, one of my favorite concepts in The Box didn’t come from Richard Kelly himself, but is instead a quote from sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, conveniently read aloud for the viewers following along at home: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Unable to resist piling even more literary quotes onto the film’s DNA, Kelly also makes several allusions to Jean-Paul Satre’s play “No Exit,” both mining its title for easy existential dread & expanding its infamous line, “Hell is other people” to “Hell is other people seeing you for who you truly are,” in an offhand stab at literary analysis. Kelly’s pulled off this trick before in Donnie Darko as well, which includes an extensive classroom analysis of the Graham Greene short story “The Destructors.” Britnee, do you think these two literary references, Clarke & Satre, as cool as they are, provide any legitimate sort of insight into what kind of story Kelly was trying to tell in The Box or were they just easy modes of injecting profundity into what’s at heart a very pulpy sci-fi premise? Was their inclusion earned in the film’s content or did it come across as a little try-hard?

Britnee: Kelly’s use of the Clarke and Satre references you mentioned, Brandon, caused me to give a big eye-roll as I was thinking back to when they occurred in the movie. It’s difficult for me to take anything in this film seriously, so I would definitely have to say that the presence of these literary references is a little ridiculous. Obviously, Kelly didn’t throw them into the film to add to the campiness, but ultimately, that’s exactly what happened. I get what he was attempting to accomplish, but this movie was just too silly for anything profound to exist within it. Then again, my knowledge of anything by Clarke and Satre doesn’t go beyond Brandon’s previous statement, so maybe I’m the crazy one and Kelly’s got the right idea.

I feel like I’m being a little harsh on The Box. There were a few moments where I caught myself thinking about monumental life choices I’ve made and what motivated me in my decisions. The Lewis family painted a picture of how ugly being selfish and greedy really is, which is why I didn’t have much sympathy for them. The fact that they decided to take the life away from another human being so they could keep up with their suburban lifestyle made me sick to my stomach. Alli, do you think the film’s “protagonists” would have been more likeable if they were worse off (e.g. Their kid was dying, and they needed money for a lifesaving transplant)?

Alli: You know, I actually do think they would be more likeable if they were in more dire circumstances, but I think making them shallow suburbanites is either some sort of misguided attempt in a post-2008 financial crisis world to say, “This is you!” to the audience or to do the high and mighty, “Yes, you as the audience gets it. Look at the normies struggling with their mixed up priorities.” And if it was the second I’m not sure if they were ever supposed to be likeable at all and it’s just about the schadenfreude. Given the smug literary references and all of Donnie Darko, pretty much I’m leaning towards that interpretation, but it seems like there’s a lot of ways to read this movie.

Even though I never liked them and never sympathized as the movie progressed, I managed to like them even less as it went on, until finally it reached a point where I actually despised them. That point was at the end when they have to choose between having a deaf and blind son or Arthur shooting Norma. I hope I’m not spoiling too much by saying this, but what the hell? The idea of a disabled son being worse than a dead wife is really upsetting to me, especially when you have a million dollars and can afford to find ways to make your life more accessible. Not only is it a cheapness of life thing but just some casual ableism thrown in. And I just shudder to think that someone watching this somewhere probably thought that that was a reasonable choice to make.

Boomer, was there any point more “upsetting” (I’m not quite sure that’s the word I’m looking for) than others to you or did nothing really stand out to all?

Boomer: The most upsetting thing to me was seeing poor little Britta passing through the long hotel hallway while being met with the stares of various Steward acolytes. I know that a lot of people find hotels to be inherently creepy automatically (I’m not one of them) and so they probably found this even more unsettling than I did, but there was something about her apparent innocence and the way that she was bandied about by forces outside of her control. I don’t recall that we ever really get much of an explanation as to who she is or what she was doing; was she, like the man from the previous box cycle from whom Arthur learns about the nature of Steward, an escapee from the “plan” who was trying to make sense of her upturned world? Was she merely an unwilling accomplice in the larger goals of the mysterious entities? It is perhaps my fondness for Gillian Jacobs alone that led me to be so thrown off by this sequence, but it was generally disturbing.

I disagree with your reading of the final scene, however. Not that there are no ableist connotations in the scene (that interpretation is certainly valid), but I don’t feel that Kelly’s intent was to make it seem that having a blind/deaf child was worse than a dead wife/mother, but was more of a demonstration of Steward’s willingness to give Norma a second chance to prove that she could make the “right” decision, since it was her impulsive pushing of the button (despite Arthur’s hesitation and apparent ultimate refusal) that doomed the family in the first place. In response to your question, what was perhaps most disturbing was the fact that Steward and his overseers were testing “free will” in a way that influenced the participants; in fact, given that none of us can come to an agreement as to whether there is free will in this situation (given the way that deaths of previous users of the box rely upon the next user making the wrong decision), it’s unclear what, if anything, could be gleaned from these experiments.

Although I hesitate to sympathize with the Lewises because of their vapid engagement in consumerism (it’s important to note that the original story did, in fact, feature a family in a much worse economic situation than the Lewises), they were living within their means until Steward manipulated events in their life, like causing Arthur to lose his candidacy for promotion and taking away the tuition reduction plan that the family relied upon in order to send their son to the best possible school In a way, the film could be seen as a modern(ish) retelling of the story of Job, substituting mild setbacks for utter familial destruction and replacing faith in God with the willingness to perform acts which enact the greatest good for the largest number of people. Viewed through this lens, Norma and Arthur have their faith tested and Norma fails, but is given the opportunity to correct this wrong through self-sacrifice. I don’t necessarily think that this is the reasonable choice, but I feel like this was more likely to be Kelly’s intent. Regardless, just as with Job, none of the characters that we see would be in the situations in which they find themselves without divine (or unholy) intervention. Maybe this means that The Box is really an exploration of the philosophical conceit that if (a) the divine is all knowing and pre-ordains all actions and (b) humans are thus unable to exercise free will despite the appearance that they can, then (c) punishing mankind for acting in accordance with preordination is unreasonable and perhaps evil. Probably not, though.

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Lagniappe

Britnee: While The Box left me with loads of unanswered questions, what I want to know more than anything else is the current whereabouts of the prosthetic silicon foot that Arthur made for Norma (using materials from his workplace!). Did Diaz take it home as a souvenir from one of her most desperate roles? Does Kelly keep it in a curio cabinet in his family room?

Alli: Coming back to the disabilities/deformities thing. I just really think it’s super messed up that someone like Norma, who lives with a limp has some sort of hierarchy of disabilities. Like, Mr. Sterling’s face makes her feel better about herself instead of her being able to identify with him. I know she’s worried about the teasing and ridicule when it comes to her son, but it’s still terrible.

Brandon: There’s so much to cover in The Box that I feel like I could never touch on all of it even if this conversation went on for two more rounds. There’s the curious case of its Arcade Fire-provided score that never reached physical media release, the weirdly wonderful feeling of seeing a babyfaced Gillian Jacobs in an early dramatic role, the peculiarly detailed prop of that Human Resource Exploitation Manual Arlington Steward supplies to his employees, and a whole lot more I could never get to with all the time in the world. Instead of trying to gather all these details like so many Pokémon, I’d just like to follow up on a couple things Alli & Boomer mentioned that interested me.

I totally agree with their assessment that the film’s musings on free will are muddled at best. This is never more apparent to me than at the film’s climax when two couples are given an ultimatum by Steward and they make their decisions simultaneously, one directly affecting the other. Whose free will is being exercised there? It’s a question (among many) that the movie is far from interested in answering. A heavy handed Steward monologue on the subject would’ve been nice. However, I do want to buck Alli’s assertion that not enough suspense is earned through interactions with the It Follows “employees”. They’re creepy as all hell and, unlike most of the film, tastefully employed in small doses. The three big moments I’m thinking of are the aforementioned zombified man in the kitchen window; the babysitter’s long, troubling walk down a motel hallway; and that incredible sequence in the library where the employees threaten to form into an angry mob. I know I’ve poked fun at how ludicrous The Box can be from minute to minute, but I do believe the suspense it generates is genuine and a lot of it comes from those creepy, dead-eyed employees of Steward’s.

Boomer: When I was working at the Urban Outfitters in the French Quarter in grad school, James Marsden came in to shop (I think he was working on the remake of Straw Dogs at the time). I rang him up and I cannot tell a lie: he really is that pretty in real life. I’m not going to say that I got lost in his eyes or anything, but I’m also not going to pretend that I didn’t. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life was the gradation of colors in the rings of Saturn through a refraction telescope at the top of the observatory in college; the viewer was the size of a dinner plate, and from ringtip to ringtip, the rings were six inches across, with nothing between me and this distant planet but glass and space. It was humbling, awe-inspiring, and absolutely stunning. The second most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen was James Marsden buying tank tops. Take from that what you will.

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
October: Britnee presents Funhouse (1981)
November: Boomer presents  The Paperhouse (1988)
December: Alli presents Last Night (1999)
January: The Top Films of 2016

-The Swampflix Crew

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10 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: The Box (2009)

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