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Fright on the Button

MOVIE REVIEW
The Box (2009)

BOX-DAY13-01431
Dale Robinette/Warner Bros. Pictures

The most cynical fans of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” consider 1963 to be the year that the immortal television series jumped the shark, albeit momentarily. In its fourth season, the beloved anthology program expanded its episodes from 30 minutes to a full hour with decidedly mixed results. For every superlative entry, such as the Martin Balsam-starring “The New Exhibit,” that justified the stretched-out running time, that uneven season also gave viewers interminable bores the likes of “I Dream of Genie.” What fans — along with Mr. Serling alike — learned in ’63 was that, on the whole, the tried-and-true “Twilight Zone” structure (three to-the-point acts leading to a head-smacking ending) worked best at a half-hour clip.

Richard Kelly — the 34-year-old, .500-batting filmmaker responsible for 2001’s wondrous “Donnie Darko” and its inferior follow-up, 2007’s all-kinds-of-wrong “Southland Tales” — should have sat with “I Dream of Genie” before taking on “The Box.” Based on Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button,” “The Box” operates with a pure “Twilight Zone” level, that of a morality tale disguised masked in creepy mood. Mr. Matheson wrote 16 of Serling’s “Twilight Zone” scripts, and saw “Button, Button” adapted into a sloppy episode of the show’s early 1980s revival. At least Mr. Kelly’s film is better than that. Still, at 110 scatterbrained minutes, Mr. Kelly’s film pushes Mr. Matheson’s perfectly fine short work to the point of narrative obesity. Two problematic 1963 “Twilight Zone” episodes for the price of one.

The first act of “The Box” is a tight presentation of ambiance. It’s 1976, in Richmond, Va. (where Mr. Kelly himself grew up); James Marsden plays a NASA employee (the same profession as Mr. Kelly’s own father) who, along with his wife (Cameron Diaz, speaking in an off Southern accent), receives a mysterious package from one Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Steward, a burn victim missing the right side of his face, informs the couple that pushing the enigmatic box’s red button will award them a cool $1 million — only, a total stranger will immediately die.

With “Donnie Darko,” Mr. Kelly introduced himself as a young, exciting eccentric, the kind of off-center filmmaker unafraid to blend genres and ramp up atmosphere. After the sloppy and overachieving “Southland Tales,” “The Box” puts those initial sensibilities back in check, and there’s enough good in the film to render it worthy of views. The film’s performances are quite capable across the board, and a handful of scenes connect with quiet menace; a tracking shot down a hotel hallway, namely, not only embodies Polanski-ness, but also David Cronenberg’s “Shivers.”

As the formative section transpires, Mr. Kelly proves surgical when it comes to unease, aided nicely by Arcade Fire’s nostalgic and macabre score. Visually, “The Box” has a water painting-like look that gives an impression of a ’70s-set dream. Mr. Kelly fancies “The Box” as a Roman Polanski evocation (easily channeling the “The Tenant” at times), and that’s achieved — until Mr. Kelly reaches the end of Mr. Matheson’s source material. Plunging the film into an investigation of Arlington Steward’s motivations and a pile of otherworldly mumbo jumbo, its writer-director flies his third feature off the rails once he’s required to inflate. The two-fingered peace signs are used to signify mindless drones, minions of Steward that suffer from bleeding noses. And at one point, Mr. Marsden walks through a floating waterfall and lands atop a sleeping Ms. Diaz, who’s in bed. As confusing as that sentence sounds here, it’s equally — if not more — muddled in the film’s context.

“Button, Button” — Mr. Matheson’s original mini tale — still works today due to its domestic paranoia. It’s a claustrophobic battle of marital wits, and Steward’s vacant biography is a plus. The boogeyman doesn’t always need a motive. The elements of Mr. Kelly’s personal childhood (i.e., NASA in the family) lose the great jumping-off point of “What would you do for a million dollars?” in a heap of ill-conceived science fiction. Mr. Kelly certainly knows his way around disquieting atmosphere — which, apparently, lives nowhere near streamlined imagination.

THE BOX

Opens on Nov. 6 in the United States and on Dec. 4 in Britain.

Written and directed by Richard Kelly, based on the story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Steven Poster; edited by Sam Bauer; music by Win Butler, Régine Chassagne and Owen Pallett; production designer, Alexander Hammond; produced by Sean McKittrick, Mr. Kelly and Dan Lin; released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Cameron Diaz (Norma Lewis), James Marsden (Arthur Lewis), Frank Langella (Arlington Steward), James Rebhorn (Norm Cahill), Holmes Osborne (Dick Burns) and Sam Oz Stone (Walter Lewis).

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