Monday, November 16, 2009

The Box (Kelly 2009)

Sometimes, just sometimes, a filmmaker is their own worst enemy, both in terms of creativity and sheer career planning. Richard Kelly might just fall into this category, having now sabotaged himself twice, in two different ways with his post Donnie Darko (2001) films. Southland Tales (2006) was a bizarre experiment that is fascinating to watch, but was doomed to critical and financial failure with his attempt to transform the film into a multimedia event that just about nobody was willing to participate in. Film is not the internet, and Kelly seemed to have to learn this the hard way. Now, with his latest film The Box, based on the Richard Matheson story “Button , Button” from 1970, Kelly has managed to bring about his own undoing again, though this time within the confines of the narrative of the film itself.

Matheson’s original story, a mere twelve pages in length, was an exploration of social responsibility and personal greed that worked like a sucker punch to the gut. The story is not character or story driven however, and is propelled forward by a central moral question embodied in its high concept premise: could you, by just pressing a button, kill someone you don’t know if it paid you enough? The social commentary of the story is dense and complex, but not exactly cinematic. This leaves potential filmmakers with two options when adapting the tale: either adapting the film as a short, maintaining the style and impact of the short story, or expand the narrative and explore the commentary further.

Kelly in this case chooses the latter option. Sort of. Instead of merely expanding the material of the source, Kelly reinvents it, drawing, oddly enough, from Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The tale becomes an exploration about how individuals make sense of the universe, blending science fiction as well as religious concepts and iconography as character’s seek to understand God (or, given the approach in the film, whatever beings are at the center of the mystery standing in for God) and the tests that all of human kind are put through. As is traditional with Kelly, the film increasingly moves into metaphysical territory as it progresses, and gives the viewer plenty to think about.

Set in the 1970s, the couple at the center of the film are Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), who have a son and are in a financially poor state. Arthur works as a lowly paid member of NASA who has helped work on developing the technology for capturing photographs and sending them across space back to Earth. Norma is an English teacher with an injured leg. Unlike the couple of Matheson’s text, Norma and Arthur are generally good people both dreaming of different forms of escaping their situation.

Enter Mr. Steward (Frank Langella), who presents the couple with the ominous box of the title and the offer noted earlier. After the expected debates that would go with such a situation, the button is inevitably pressed and the film shifts into something of a detective film, as both Norma and Arthur investigate the reasons and people behind the box.

It is this detective element that Kelly adds to the tale which somewhat injures the film. At its core, the mystery is not unlike that of the film Blow Up (Antonioni 1966), in that the central investigation is really irrelevant and instead gives viewers an opportunity to explore the characters undertaking the respective investigations. Any answers either film could give to the mystery would never live up to expectations or scrutiny, and really don’t matter. The situations the characters are in simply are, and are not meant to be seen entirely literally. Kelly however gives enough screen time and reasoning to the reasons behind the tests that audiences can be forgiven for mistaking the film as being about the finding out about the conspiracy itself rather than the character exploration that it is. It becomes a distraction: too much is given to ignore the literal story level concerns of the film, yet too little is given to flesh it out properly. In any event, what surface level answers are provided are sheer disappointments. This is a shame, because so much of what Kelly is trying to do in the film is fascinating that to see it damned entirely thanks to a problem that should have been avoided is frustrating.

In fact, what the flaws of The Box suggest is that Kelly himself is a victim of his own supposed auteur status that was given to him after Donnie Darko. Much like M. Night Shyamalan came to have twist endings associated with him after The Sixth Sense (1999), Kelly seems to have adopted complex narrative structures and storylines as a requirement in all of his films, including films that he is only a writer on, like Domino (Scott 2005). The problem is that so far none of the films have really needed or benefited from this approach. The method of how a story is told needs to fit the story itself, something that recent filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino have so far proven to understand. Kelly however, does not.

As it stands, Kelly is proving to be a brilliant man with great potential that is at risk of damning his own career. One needs only to look at the beautifully designed frames and edits to see Kelly’s immense visual prowess, and his skill at getting an excellent performance out of Cameron Diaz, an actress who I have written off in the past as being fairly flat and lacking in range, is a testament to his skill at working with actors. This will be all for naught if Kelly doesn’t find a way to work past his own excesses.

In all, The Box is a more consistent effort from Kelly and worth watching. However, it needs to be tempered with the knowledge that a better version of this film could have been made, and to accept the film for what is trying to escape from within its own flaws.

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