Thursday, November 19, 2009

Opening up a Box of Worms

Richard Kelly's The Box is intriguing and mysterious almost in spite of itself. It is an entertaining carnival show even if the story is, in all honesty, a complete and utter mess. Kelly is a master at crafting mysteries that build with fascinating brilliance and then pay-off with almost complete fizzle, and The Box fits into that mold like the perfect missing puzzle piece. Donnie Darko, the filmmaker's first feature, was his most successful -- an endlessly engaging mind-bender with great period details and oodles of style. The long-delayed Southland Tales was an ambitious, overblown disaster and was justly pilloried as such. Now, The Box...

People are going to hate it. People have hated it. That opinion is not altogether wrong. For me, one who tends to enjoy the ride of being jerked around by a weirdo cinematic journey, I checked my sense at the door and just tried to go with it. For the most part, I was successful. But why, then, do I roll my eyes and groan every time I think back on the film?

If you've seen the trailer, you know the plot. A Southern couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) are visited by a mysterious gentleman with half a face (Frank Langella), who presents them with a strange button device that comes with a hefty choice: press the button and someone in the world will die...and then the couple will receive a million bucks. Don't press it, and no one dies...but no money. A simple concept, weighed down by a metric ton of over-complicated plot mechanics involving zombified secret agents, otherworldly portals, and inevitable fates.

For a film that pitches itself as a shocking mind-bender, the storytelling is straight-forward to a fault. There is no twist or revelation, no great secret unearthed -- we are informed of the central conceit literally two minutes into the film, and then the story plays out. Odd stuff happens, most of it unexplained, but understood enough to seem more ho-hum than revelatory. The film's overriding message -- that we as humans bear a great responsibility for the destruction of our world and our species, is valid, but has been explored in more interesting ways in better films. The film's one unique attribute, the titular "box," is a system by which we are simultaneously judged for our destruction and aided in continuing said destruction. The film presents a world of cyclical obliteration -- humankind kills humankind, and the machine helps. A very lofty sci-fi notion, indeed, but one that must be aided by focused storytelling rather than aimless tinkering.

Kelly, more than any other filmmaker currently working, is on the verge of becoming a complete industry joke. His films carry an aura of self-importance and grand doom, which only works if audiences buy into your illusion. They are not. In truth, the guy is so adept at devising a concept that any pay-off, no matter how well thought-out in his own mind, will come off feeling cheap and unworthy. I had to turn off the commentary on the Donnie Darko DVD because I was happier enjoying the movie with the explanation than to have Kelly go into labyrinthine description that demystified the entire enterprise and exposed the plot as flimsy. There is a reason David Lynch never explains his work -- he understands that art is a very inward experience and that his artistry is nebulous, playing to each viewer in a unique way. Kelly has that potential, but goes about his game too literally. 

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