My notes on The Box.It says something about writer-director Richard Kelly’s age and breadth of cultural reference that this is spun off from an episode of the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone (based on Richard Matheson’s short story ‘Button, Button’) rather than Rod Serling’s original series, while the 1976 setting gives it something of the feel of the Philip Kaufman version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The first act is the original story, with extra agonies piled on: Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz), a teacher in a private school in Richmond, Va., is humiliated during a class on Sartre’s Huis Clos by a creepy pupil who insists she show her foot, shorn of toes thanks to a long-ago medical malpractice and told by her principal, who has one of an epidemic of sinister nosebleeds running through the film, that a perk she depends on (free enrollment for her son in the school) is being withdrawn; meanwhile, her devoted husband Arthur (James Marsden), who toils for NASA and has worked on the recently-successful Mars Lander, is told that he has been rejected for astronaut training because he failed ‘the psychological test’.
A mystery box arrives in the post in the morning, containing a device which is basically a push-button, with a card that says a Mr Arlington Steward will call later to explain – Steward (Frank Langella), who has a quarter of his face missing after a lightning-strike, tells Norma that if she pushes the button she will receive a million dollars in cash and someone she doesn’t know somewhere in the world will die. She talks it over with Arthur, and they can’t be sure whether it’s some sort of a con game or a candid camera trick – but things are going badly for both of them, and a social engagement (a pre-wedding shower for her sister) raises all sorts of little irritations – Arthur’s cop father-in-law (Holmes Osborne) jokes that he’ll never be an astronaut with his (moderate) sideburns (‘which one are you – Lynyrd or Skynyrd?’) – and, in the end, Norma just pushes the button to get it over with. The cash is delivered, the Lewises are assured that someone they didn’t know has died, and we get Matheson’s killer last line (the box is being reprogrammed and will be given to ‘someone you don’t know’) though Kelly feels a need to explain it for the thickos as Arthur blurts something like ‘does this mean we’re the next victims’, which is the equivalent of ‘whoa, it’s a cook-book – does that mean, like, the aliens intended to eat us all along – gross!’ We’ve already seen glimpses of the last NASA employee family to fail this test, as a husband flees after shooting his wife and a child is found barricaded in a bathroom. And, eventually, we see the next couple: in each case, it’s the wife who pushes the button, though it’s not clear whether Steward’s offer is made to her and her alone or whether husbands would be allowed to participate actively rather than just included in the discussion.
Since the original story would only work as a short, the film has to spin off a whole vast conspiracy/invasion/paranoid plot for the rest of its running time, as the couple are elaborately punished for their murderous greed. It seems Steward is possessed by an alien intelligence and commands a whole crowd of human puppets (the nosebleeds are a giveaway) as part of the testing process, which is one of those deals whereby aliens try to work out whether humans are worthy to survive: in which case, it seems unfair to nudge them to evil by ruining their day before they have the fatal choice to make. Also, the second test – if Arthur shoots Norma, their son (Sam Oz Stone) will be cured of the deaf-and-blindness the aliens have forced on him, which is keyed to whether the next wife pushes the button – isn’t as elegant or troubling as the first, but has to serve as the climax. What does work is the air of off-kilter ‘70s conspiratorial weirdness: the Lewis’s ghastly orange-and-beige wallpaper, Steward’s lair in a huge NASA wind-tunnel, the bodysnatched crowds of funny-creepy people staring in unison, the nosebleeds (a bit League of Gentlemen), watery wormhole portals, rituals in a taken-over motel, Langella’s modestly terrifying presence (the eaten-away face is a superb CGI effect, and all the more disturbing for his habit of angling himself to the camera so the deformity is just barely discernible as a wrongly-shaped jawline), the mysterioso music score of Win Butler, Régine Chassagne and Owen Pallett (the zoniest aspect of the film) and some spacey character bits from supporting players who seem to be locked into their own separate movies.
Like the longer, more indulgent cut of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, it has so much going on that it can’t cope with everything: Kelly seems torn by contradictory impulses to over-egg the mystery and overexplain things for the yahoos, and all the vast alien business (Arthur C. Clarke is name-checked and Philip K. Dick is evoked) pulls us away from what works in the original story (and the TV episode – directed by Peter Medak, with Mare Winningham and Brad Davis), and works here when given half a chance: two people in a room with a prosaic yet incomprehensible object, faced with a temptation and a choice. Diaz, Marsden and Langella are all terrific, and in fact do so much with the characters that the film could have lost a great deal of the set-up stuff and let them come into their own without the ‘end of a bad day’ business that seems to me to queer the experiment anyway.