Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) receive a small box with a red button on top delivered by a mysterious man (Frank Langella) with half the left side of his face missing (gruesome, courtesy of CGI). It’s a Faustian deal. Press button and receive a million bucks. The catch: Someone unknown to you dies.
Here’s a good thing about The Box: The special effects water and its climax are très cool. Would that the rest of the flick were as compelling.
The melodramatic plot of nosebleeds, the afterlife, lightning, zomboids, Mars hokum, and the CIA borders on incoherent. Certain plot points in The Box are so problematic, silly, or contrived that you are lurched outside the tale. You will laugh, or else scratch your head and think, “Huh, what?" You will also wonder why you should empathize with the principal characters—who have good jobs and a nice home—when they would bump off a stranger in order to bridge a rough financial patch and be even more comfy in the future than they already are. Richard Kelly, the director and screenwriter, seems to have forgotten that—unless you’re Brecht and consciously demolishing the fourth wall—such maladroit lurchings shatter the willing suspension of disbelief.
Then there's the pacing—mostly glacial—and not interestingly glacial as in an Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick film, just leaden. Then there’s the dialogue. Every neophyte drama student knows that exposition creates backstory. The trick with exposition is to bury it in dialogue so astutely crafted that an audience is not aware that it's absorbing past facts crucial to an understanding of the present story. Exposition in The Box is often obvious and crudely dispensed (and there’s lots of it in an attempt to make the opaque plot transparent).
The film’s faults might be forgiven if it lived up to the raison d'être of its genre. The Box is supposed to be a supernatural/sci-fi thriller wrapped around a morality tale. Thrillers must have thrills. I don’t know about you, but my indispensable criterion for thriller thrills is whether the suspense is so fraught that my skin crawls and I’m perched on my seat’s edge. Attendant to this crawling and perching, I want to flee the theatre because I can’t stand one more second of apprehension. Yet I can’t leave. I am riveted to my cushion. The Box riveted me to my cushion twice. The several times I wanted to leave the theatre were occasioned by boredom.
Of many wasted efforts in The Box, Cameron Diaz is the most misused. Diaz is a game comedienne; she can also deglamourize and disappear in a part not seemingly meant for her—as she proved, respectively, in The Mask and Being John Malkovich. One automatically thinks of her as beautiful in the tall, blond manner. In The Box, sometimes she does appear lovely, but sometimes her face betrays her typecasting and seems close to ugly. Such a complex look is fruitful for an actress because she can use it to embody all the hope, love, joy, disappointment, sadness, and tragedy life brings. Her face sets Diaz apart from, say, Jennifer Aniston, who is merely pretty and—so far—only middling good at her craft.
Furthermore, Diaz has aged beyond being even a youngish romantic comedy lead. In The Box, she’s the mother of a pre-pubescent son. This aging is her and our blessing. It would be a marvel to see her on stage as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She deserves, at least, a complex film role that struts her stuff as an actor capable of the most profound incarnations of multiple truths that drama can provide. The Box, however, is so vacuous that she has nothing worth playing with or for, though now and again you can see in her performance what might await. Let us hope she gets a great part soon, so she can triumphantly mark her development for all of us to witness. Meanwhile, spend your money elsewhere (see Bright Star again!) and hope that Mystery Science Theatre 3000 will be revived so The Box can receive the lampooning it deserves.