The Box (2009)

Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs

Directed by: Richard Kelly

Rating: 1 2 3

Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) confronts Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) over The Box

If someone offered you a million dollars to press a button, you'd press it, right? But what if that someone told you that when you pressed the button, a stranger would die? Would you press it then? Would you? Even if you thought it was probably a wind up? Would you?

But in Richard Kelly's existential thriller The Box, it doesn't matter what you think. Motivation and intention are irrelevant: it's what you do that counts.

So when hard-working but cash-strapped suburban couple Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) push the button (c'mon, that's hardly a spoiler – it wouldn't be much of a film if they didn't) it doesn't really matter that they believe it's a hoax, and that they instantly regret it. The fact is, they made a decision, and must spend the rest of the film's almost two hour running time facing the consequences.

Set in 1976, at the time the Viking space probes were investigating Mars, The Box mixes 1960s alien/communist under the bed fears with the '90s obsession with government conspiracy, then throws in the tension of a psychological thriller: Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The X-Files, with added Memento thrown in.

Like Kelly's infamous cult classic Donnie Darko, it also gives you plenty to think about and puzzle over, as bizarre twist piles on top of unexpected turn. But while the former left me buzzing with ideas as to what the whole thing means, The Box had me feeling as if I was missing something (which, to be fair, I probably was, having nodded off briefly at one point – for a thriller it ain't half slow in places).  

James Marsden and Cameron Diaz open The BoxIt's not all bad, however:  Frank Langella is magnificent as the Mephistopholean box master Arlington Steward, while Diaz and Marsden make a handsome and convincing couple, and you do feel for them as they stumble through the complex plot looking as dazed and confused as the audience. This is definitely the kind of film that requires a second viewing, and it's intriguing and absorbing enough to make that a possibility.

Through a mix of swelling, ominous music, creepy images and sudden shocks, Kelly builds an uneasy atmosphere with consummate skill – it's just a shame the ending doesn't really pay off, or answer any of the questions raised. Is there 'no fate but what we make', or are our actions determined by forces beyond our ken? Are we free to do make our own choices, or are we all trapped within the boxy confines of our everyday lives. I guess we'll never know…

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