by James Hansen
Pull back the knives! Richard Kelly, known in certain circles as THE GREATEST DIRECTOR OF ALL TIME and in others as an inexplicably successful hack job, is back again with The Box, which should be known as the third film in Richard Kelly’s Melodramatic Menage-A-Trois Sci-fi Extravaganza. With just three movies under his directorial belt, Kelly is three for three in tackling the end of the world by looking at the people who can save us, the people who can’t, and the people who contemplate disaster on the sidelines. While Donnie Darko’s parabolic singularity found new hope, Southland Tales (and The Box) illustrate a collaborative mish-mash of a society-enabling snap-crackle-apocalypse that swarms the earth faster than a D-list celebrity porn star flashes her box on reality TV.
If both Southland Tales and The Box ultimately suffer from an overly explanatory mode of address – Southland Tales in its final third, The Box a little more consistently throughout – it is only because Kelly actually has something to say. Perhaps movies with musical interludes and a Swimming Pool Transit Authority have no right to feature finales that drench overwhelming seriousness onto thin moral lessons, but Kelly seems to disagree. As the dead man standing on the corner or the boy looking through a window, Kelly makes it clear that the world is a vampire sent to drain the better homes and gardens of an objectivist mass culture without rationality.
The Box, based on the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson, delivers an impending sense of dread throughout its opening half when the recently deformed Arlington Steward offers a box with a bright red button to Norma and Arthur Lewis. Norma, a prep school teacher seen teaching Sartre’s No Exit before being asked to display her deformed foot to the class, and Arthur, a wanna-be NASA astronaut who flunks his psych exams, have a moral dilemma placed on their dining room table like it was Thanksgiving dinner. Push the button, get a million dollars and someone in the world will die. Can hell be other people if you don’t know the other people? Once the button is pushed – hence the box opened – hell remains broken loose for the entirety of the second half, as the conspiracy and trappings of the box and its associative systems becomes entangled with what seems to be entire human race.
Starting with gobbly-gook water portals run by “The People Who Control The Lightning,” Steward’s associates, looking for some good in the world, run morality tests with the box and stand by perpetuating the cycle until the humans have literally killed each other. Nothing subtle here, especially in the screenplay (“This is purgatory, isn’t it!!??”), but the moral quandary isn’t something to toss off so easily. The digital cinematography, operating as an hourglass peering into a forgotten, immoral world, echoes the period distinction, yet also allows for a hallucinogenic time warp (almost literally), which brings the distinctly past moments into the hyper-modern foray of a chaotic, uroborotic society seen in Southland Tales.
If The Box is less assured than Southland Tales – and I’m not sure it is – it may be that Kelly, for the first time, is dealing with real people and the morality that operates in a supposedly normally functioning society. (Donnie Darko does this to some extent, but its prophetization makes it troubling; Southland Tales may highlight a post-world world overtaken by modern trends and obsessions, but its deep connections to satire position it an a different context). This is a both a strength and a weakness, as Kelly tries to keeps it “real” but leaves his characters a bit too broad, which has resulted in some of the backlash, not to mention that this movie is actually bat-shit crazy making any goal of realism pretty far off target. But, then again, Kelly is a pimp… and pimps don’t commit suicide. Kelly is pushing the viewer against the grain (and himself against the critical community), for better or worse, but it’s all to keep us, and himself, alive. It’s another grand swing from Kelly who, for the third time, might be biting off more than he can chew. But he’s still biting...hard.