The year is 1976, 200 years after American Independence. We are in Virginia, the first landing place of the English settlers. The box delivered to Norma and Arthur's door represents a test of a different, more fundamental independence - not physical or political but intellectual, spiritual and moral:
Press the button and someone will die. Press the button and you will receive One Million Dollars. It is a simple equation behind which many permutations lie.
There is a feeling below the surface that America has lost its way and that fear (there is an image on the television of a boat dating back to the time of American settlement floating past the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre) may have been the catalyst for a new fall.
For Arthur and Norma, confronted with a shiny red button, it is easy to read Adam and Eve, tempted by the apple.
This fear, and the attendant solipsism and violence that may have overtaken us (Arlington says he has a "busy day" of offering opportunities and delivering money), is revealed in an ironic little exchange between Norma and Arthur, where hate stands in for love:
"I hate you"
"I hate you too"
*** The Box is an accelerated (biblical) story of humanity, from the fall to the last judgement. As in Southland Tales its atmosphere is a concoction of nostalgia, of fear, of passion, of melancholy sadness in the face of harsh realities and the End of Days. These people are wounded, suspended in a state of rootless confusion, as if still reeling from a distant explosion.
I believe, in the three films he has made so far, Richard Kelly is doing as much as Andrei Tarkovsky did to explore the landscape of spiritual quest.
*** The box is a test of Free Will as well as the seed for the question of whether Free Will can fully exist. The couples who are handed the box are linked. It seems like all the people within the world of the film are linked. Is there an exit when their liberties are shown to necessarily impinge on others'. It appears to be a closed system, regardless of whether the person they are killing is 'known' to them or not. One bad apple, therefore, can turn the whole barrel rotten.
In fact, the presser of the button (each time it is the wife who presses the button, again in allusion to Eve) could be fated to end up dead herself.
In such a system, where killing one may be to kill all, hell can indeed be other people. They hold your fate in their hands. But the logical corollary of this is that they can also be our salvation. Take out one domino and the whole chain grinds to a halt.
I believe that had the final couple refused to press the button then the burden of a life and death choice would have been lifted off Norma and Arthur's shoulders and mercy rained down. Think how, in the Bible, God tested Abraham's devotion, telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac only to stay his hand from the final blow once his obedience had been proven. The film may suggest too that the system is beyond time and that effect can create cause. That is to say, if Arthur hadn't killed Norma would the couple we see at the end have pressed the button?
*** The locked door behind which Norma and Arthur's son lies deaf and blind is a metaphor for the wall through which faith traverses, the dark glass through which Man and God peer at each other.
*** The button is an instrument of remote death. It sets the immediate reality of private benefit against the distant idea of common pain. It brings to mind the red button of nuclear holocaust, remote death on a grander scale.
*** What is particularly damning about Norma and Arthur's decision (though the film does well to not 'judge' their actions, or lead us towards a particular judgement) is that, putting aside the outcome of their deliberations, it is marked by unbelief and by an inability to wrestle with one's conscience.
The dilemma gnaws away at them. When Norma bites and presses the button they do not boldly take a certain moral path but instead raze the very ground upon which the conundrum is founded:
"It's just a box"
These characters struggle with the very act of struggling. On two separate occasions characters ponder at length which of several identical champagne glasses to pick.
*** It is unfortunate for them that they have been chosen to decide the fate of mankind. Their house number is 7321 - if you add up the numbers you get unlucky thirteen; if you multiply them you get a famous Science Fiction answer for the meaning of life: 42.
*** The Box is a hopeful film because the reverse of its downbeat premise is that love and selflessness can save us and elevate us.
A couple of moments struck me. First, the fact that Norma opened Arthur's letter from NASA, knowing that he trusts her, that what is his is hers. Second, when Norma and Arthur smile disarmingly at each other through the window as she dances with the new prosthetic foot he so assiduously sculpted for her.
*** The Box is a funny film too. It takes the strange, the potentially absurd and the epic seriously while undermining the gravity of its premise with deadpan humour:
"Sir? If you don't mind my asking... why a box? "
"Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it. You drive home in it. You sit in your home, staring into a box. It erodes your soul, while the box that is your body inevitably withers... then dies. Where upon it is placed in the ultimate box, to slowly decompose."
"It's quite depressing, if you think of it that way."
"Don't think of it that way..."
*** Writer and Director Richard Kelly is a true storyteller. His tales take what would normally be the subtext and unfurl it and unravel it. It feels like no-one, not even he, knows where the story is going and the illusion that The Box is made up as it goes along makes following it all the more thrilling. It goes off the map, where other films do not dare go, unpacking a two-part chamber piece and letting out all its maddest implications - aliens, Gods, zombified 'employees', life on other planets and sundry mythological conceits.
The Box is a mighty stand against 'just so' film-making. It screws the lifeless, severed head of restraint (restraint is an elegant polished nugget but a rigid enclosure too) and formula to the sticking post.
The Box has received plentiful criticism for being 'ill-disciplined' and risible. Is it silly to show things that are different? Is fantasy implausible when the film faithfully adheres to its own internal logic? The Box is exciting, funny, thought-provoking and disturbing. Cinema needs film-makers like Richard Kelly.