Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dude Movies: The Box

What's it about?
The fantastically creeptastic Frank Langella, looking like a dude from a Magritte painting who's face had an argument with a meat grinder and lost, presents a money-strapped couple with a box and instructions: press the button and get a million dollars, but somebody you've never met will die. Or, you know,

Any chicks in the movie?
The uniformly terrible Cameron Diaz, sporting an accent better suited to a community theatre production of
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof instead of a Hollywood movie where, presumably, she was paid in legally tendered bank notes. Also, she has a club foot for no apparent reason. If you ever asked yourself "Is Cameron Diaz a talented enough actress to limp convincingly while speaking with the worst Southern accent since the auditions for the first season of True Blood?"*, then this is the movie for you.

Awesomeness Factor?
You'd think there would be an easy answer to that question, given that
The Box is based on a short-story by legendary twist-meister Richard Matheson which is only, like, ten pages long.** For the first forty minutes or so, The Box is a retelling of that story (albeit padded with lots more backstory and inexplicably set in the 70s), and to my massive surprise it's pretty good. See, director Richard Kelly is the guy that did Donnie Darko and former Dude Movie pick Southland Tales, and if there's one thing I've learned from the commentary track to Donnie Darko, it's that Richard Kelly is fucking nuts. He's like the crazy bipolar version of M. Night Shamalyan, in that he's clearly a extremely talented visual director who, equally clearly, is genetically incapable of telling a coherent story. But the first forty minutes of The Box really play to his strengths (leaving out the atrocious acting from Diaz): fantastic attention to 1970s detail in the art design, good frame composition and pacing that gives everything a slightly dreamlike air, and everything's laced with a sensual undertone of fear and dread. But here's the problem: at the forty minute mark, the original story is pretty much over - Diaz pushes the button, they get a million smackers, and Langella pointedly tells them he's going to give the box to somebody they've never met*** - and there's still seventy minutes left to go. At which point, The Box takes a hard left from creepy Twilight Zone territory into full-blown hardcore Richard Kelly insane what-the-fuckitude: aliens! government conspiracies! trans-dimensional gates! mad science! creepy zombie people! even creepier religious wingnuttery! nose bleeds! near-death experiences! floating cubes of spirit water! No joke, there was at least three separate points in the last half hour where I was convinced my DVD player was fucking up and it skipped over an entire chapter that would have at least tried to explain what the hell was happening, but no. It's just crazy. And not the kind of crazy like, say, Mulholland Dr. or Lost where it intrigues you enough to puzzle out a secret meaning. No, this is the kind of crazy that makes you want to back away slowly from the television and not make eye contact with the disc. It's like the first half was directed by Kelly on the depressive downswing, and the last half on the manic uptick. But, like Southland Tales before it, you can't deny there's a certain perverse fascination with a movie that is so willing - eager, even - to go full-tilt into Loony Town without any consideration of what a potential audience might think. I'm sure the floating water cubes and aliens travelling through lightning bolts must mean something to Richard Kelly, but the movie itself gives you absolutely no indication as to what it might be. It's a maddening, idiotic, frustrating mess of a movie, but on some weird level I'm really glad it exists. Just don't make me watch it again.

Mitigated by?
One more note to Richard Kelly: having a bunch of characters do that head-down, eyes-glaring-from-under-the-brow thing doesn't make you
Stanley fucking Kubrick.

* Answer: No.

** Here's how that story goes: Dude gives couple the box. Couple argue for a couple of pages. Wife and husband debate for a bit, and wife hits the button. Hubby gets plowed by a car on the way home, she collects the life insurance money. But, didn't the dude say somebody she didn't know would die? Turns out:
She never really knew her husband! DUN-DUN-DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN!!!!!!


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