I am not a fan of David Lynch. Personally, I take the Moe Szylak approach to describing his post-modern art-farts: "Y'know... Weird for the sake of weird." The example I always use in my argument is the alley troll in Mulholland Drive; a shocking moment, but one that actually made sense when the project was being shot as a TV series - Lynch, unwilling to waste film, simply left the scene in, but free of context. See? Weird for the sake of weird.
Fellow fans insist that Lynch is a genius; that his films aren't supposed
to make sense. I've always snorted at the 'films as abstract art' defence because it's too easy a get-out clause for lazy filmmaking: it's actually really deep and meaningful, but you
didn't get it. However, after watching The Box, for the first time I got an inkling of why the works of David Lynch et al are held in such high esteem. It's not whether these films necessarily make any sense, but whether you enjoy
them that matters.
Elevated to the status of indie saviour by the curate's egg that was Donnie Darko
then brought crashing down to Earth with the impenetrable Southland Tales (both of which I rather enjoyed), director Richard Kelly is another filmmaker who is seemingly incapable of making a 'normal' film. Even The Box, his most marketable movie to date, builds on its solid sci-fi foundations until it's completely unrecognisable by the closing credits.
Frustratingly ambiguous at best and maddeningly inconsistent at its worst, The Box will no doubt divide audiences like Kelly's previous films, but there will be few walk-outs - it is a movie that absolutely demands eyes on it at all times.
The concept, based on short story 'Button, Button' by Richard Matheson and later adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone, is a doozy. Struggling middle-class couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (my man-crush, James Marsden) are presented with a unique solution to their financial problems: well-spoken stranger Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives on their doorstep and presents them with a box that could transform their fortunes. Push the box's button and they will be rewarded with $1m. The kicker is that someone, somewhere, who they do not know, will die. No such thing as a free lunch.
Naturally, and it is hardly a spoiler to reveal that the button does not go unpushed for long, there are consequences to be faced. For its first hour, The Box is a first-class psychological thriller that's swathed in a pervading sense of creepiness. As Norma and Arthur start to push Steward's own buttons, the complex moral maze they find themselves stuck in begins to close in on them. Claustrophobic and queasy, think the best movie never directed by M Night Shyamalan and you're close; it's genuinely compelling stuff.
Then, Kelly - perhaps sensing he'd be lynched by his fans for daring to opt for a conventional narrative - needlessly turns the movie on its head. Arthur's involvement in NASA's Mars voyage comes to the fore. The townsfolk of Richmond, Virginia, begin to turn on the couple in scenes eerily reminiscent of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Characters suffer frequent nosebleeds. Langella's antagonist, minus half a jaw thanks to some top-notch effects work, is revealed to be even more sinister than previously thought. It requires huge leaps of logic to keep up; how much you grant it depends on your tolerance for Kelly's fractured narratives and intentionally melon-twisting tangents.
Donnie Darko frustrated many with its use of circular narratives and time loops; The Box features similar deus ex machina to write itself out of corners. Southland Tales failed utterly as a narrative but convinced as a curio on an epic scale; The Box, having been effectively derailed with a good 30 minutes left, abandons narrative altogether and opts for the same approach of showing more and telling less. The one consistency between all three of Kelly's features is that they are inconsistent: one thing they are not is boring.
The Box undoubtedly suffers from its ending: up until a jaw-droppingly baffling library scene, it is a five-star film. Kelly's topsy-turvy final chapter works to The Box's detriment, and indeed to the performances of its two leads. Diaz and Marsden perform good work individually, but together, under pressure, they make an unconvincing couple. Crucially, Kelly's disregard for logic means that one further moral decision, thrust upon his characters in the last act, loses any potential impact. At this point, you honestly wouldn't be surprised by the appearance of a man in a bunny suit or an amnesiac wrestler.
However, by this point, The Box already has you interested in its contents. Yes, the final reel poses far more questions than it has either the time or inclination to answer. (What happens to people who don't
push the button?). True, it is not even nearly the movie it was advertised as being. And yes, in parts, it is just plain odd. (Two words: gimpy foot). But The Box, and indeed Kelly, have such unwavering faith in themselves, you can't help but be swept along for the ride. You could never say it's predictable; at the very least, it's competently directed and features a pulse-racing score.
As I've always said about David Lynch's movies, there's nothing wrong with a little food for thought to take home afterwards, but not everyone has the stomach to chow down on a whole bargain bucket. The Box leaves you with a veritable buffet of head-scratchers, but doesn't necessarily require you to make sense of it. In a way, as it's ostensibly a science fiction piece, it doesn't have to. You will leave well nourished, but there will be more than a few philosophical crumbs that you can pick from your teeth later.
The Box is not a perfect film; it is not even that great an improvement on Southland Tales in terms of structure and coherence. But it is hugely watchable and sells itself with the same charming assurance that Langella's own mysterious stranger has in spades. Weird for the sake of weird? Definitely. A work of art? Maybe. Genius? Hardly. But be sure of one thing: this is most certainly a box that's worth peeking into.