Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Box - Notes

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.


  1. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to see this film, but now I'm sure I do. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Ronak.

    Most people really dislike it, so I'd be interested in your thoughts on it. Have you seen Southland Tales?

    By the way, it's a shame you haven't been posting for a while. I just saw on your blog that you're a Physics student. Good luck with that.

  3. No, I've seen neither Southland Tales nor Donnie Darko.
    I know most people don' think much of it, but with this sort of thing in mind I doubt I'll feel like I wasted my two hours.

    I couldn't post because I had exams last month, so thanks for the good wishes. I'll probably be back on either this week or the next.

  4. Great post. I loved Southland Tales, and thought The Box was at least interesting, if not quite as fully realized or (yes) coherent as its predecessor (and yes, I realize most people think Southland Tales itself is incoherent). Kelly seems to be bursting with ideas, and I love that about him. His last two films have been nutty and philosophical and satirical and, as you say, often funny as Hell: the Rock's performance in Southland Tales really cracks me up. And I can't think of many films that do a better job of satirizing and capturing the era of infotainment than Southland Tales. Kelly is still working through his influences to some extent — the occasional bursts of undigested Lynch are disconcerting, and unnecessary since Kelly does have an aesthetic of his own, distinct from his idol.

    I love your numerology that unexpectedly connects this film to Douglas Adams; who would've thought?

  5. Thank you very much, Ed.

    I read your piece on The Box but hadn't commented as I wanted to get my own thoughts straight first.

    I thought Southland Tales was brilliant too. I hope Kelly continues to be able to make bold films. In many ways he is like M Night Shyamalan. Their idiosyncratic styles of storytelling risk popular opprobrium but gain rich rewards nevertheless.

  6. Ouch, Shyamalan? I don't see the comparison at all. He seems pretty lacking in ideas in comparison to Kelly, and unlike Kelly, his best films (like Unbreakable, the only one I'd really want to rewatch) are his most traditional. Kelly's better the more unfettered, the less conventional, he's allowed to be.

    I do agree about Kelly: I hope, though I realize it's kind of unlikely, that he's able to keep making the films he wants to make. I mean, The Box was marketed and conceived as a more commercial feature for Kelly to regain some audience attention after Southland Tales, and look how that turned out. It's clearly not a crowd-pleaser, and I wonder if Kelly is really capable of consistently making crowd-pleasers, or if the slow-burning cult success of Donnie Darko was just a fluke. I think it'll be hard for Kelly to continue making the films he wants to make within the Hollywood system, but I'm not sure where else he'd go to make these things. He's in the unfortunate position of lacking both commercial appeal and widespread critical approval; to some extent he pisses everyone off.

  7. Ed,

    The Shyamalan comparison was only one of public / critical reaction. Also Shyamalan's ideas are often seen as too 'out there'.

    I actually really disliked Donnie Darko(!) It seemed pretentious and try-hard to me.

    "He's in the unfortunate position of lacking both commercial appeal and widespread critical approval; to some extent he pisses everyone off."

    Yes. An admirable achievement!

  8. I wondered about this film, and saw it came and went rather quickly.

    The way you've laid it out in your review, make it worth viewing.

    Never saw Southland Tales, and wonder about that one.

    DD never sounded very interesting.


  9. Thanks, Coffee Messiah.

    I think that, even if you don't like these films, they are at least a different flavour for the film broth.

  10. Splendid write up, Stephen. I haven't seen the film, but the synopsis sounded generic yet interesting. I haven't seen any of Kelly's films.

    Also, the premise and your review make the film seem like highly politically charged. Do you see it that way?

  11. Thanks a lot, JAFB.

    The film opens up several questions. If it has a stance, it would appear to lean a little towards an assumption that America and modern society across the world has grown selfish and gone astray morally - but only as an opening gambit.

    It does not cast an overt judgement on anyone and is as much full of hope as it is of despair.

    I hope you get to see it and tell me what you think.

  12. "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."

    That's quite a statement there Stephen, but I am not prepared at all to contest it, as I do believe you are on to something. This film has really grown on me since the first viewing, and whatever narrative inconsistencies may crop up, it's an altogether gripping piece that resembles 70's paranoia by stressing various images and segments of a disorienting and disturbing nature. The pace and striking visuals prove vital in cultivating an atmosphere of palpable unease and disorientation. It's a film that certainly requires the viewer to dismiss the hankering for an easy answer, as you have magnificently posed for your series of explicit narrative points. Fascinating.

  13. Thanks a lot, Sam.

    When I saw you'd quoted my comparison to Tarkovsky I felt sure you were going to dismiss it.

    I really disliked Donnie Darko when I saw it but, since I was impressed by Southland Tales and The Box, I may give it another go.

  14. You need to give Donnie Darko another chance, if you see my reviews at my blog (behind all the blogathon stuff) I see some themes that cross. Richard Kelly is a fascinating director and he deserves the blogathon.
    Thanks for putting this one out there for the endeavour.
    If you find time to write another thing or maybe do something else, feel free to do so if you can/want! These two posts were wonderful!
    Thanks again!

  15. Jaime,

    I will try to watch Donnie Darko again. I don't think I'll be able to write anything new on the other two films. I'm glad you like the pieces, though.