The dilemma is simple: A couple has 24 hours to choose whether to press a button and consequently kill someone they do not know in exchange for $1 million. The movie, however, is anything but simple. The opening stretch of Richard Kelly’s third feature (after Donnie Darko and Southland Tales) faithfully keeps the beats of Richard Matheson’s story “Button, Button” by way of its previous adaptation for the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone, which gave Matheson’s tale a different final twist. The film keeps going long after exhausting the logic of the original tale, almost as if Kelly spent years wondering where the button came from, and decided to make a story to find out, transposing it to the time and place from which he came, upper-middle-class 1970s Virginia. Except in the process of explaining the button, The Box raises as many questions as it puts to rest, fleshing out the story with queries about the nature of fate, allusions to Eve and Pandora, an atmosphere of post-Watergate paranoia, scenes that darkly invert Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and the heaviest concentration of Jean-Paul Sartre references this side of an Intro To 20th-Century Philosophy class.
It’s more weight than the story can comfortably support, yet The Box keeps buckling without collapsing. That’s partly because stars James Marsden and Cameron Diaz, distracting accents and all, convey real warmth as the financially overextended central couple. But it’s mostly because of Kelly’s skill at bringing an atmosphere of creeping dread to the most banal settings. The film makes an off-ramp motel and a library outfitted in high-’70s décor as frightening as any spookhouse. (A foreboding score by Win Butler and Régine Chassagne of The Arcade Fire, plus their occasional collaborator Owen Pallett, helps as well.)
Kelly knows how to keep the tension mounting even when it isn’t clear what’s going on. Which is good, since it’s seldom clear what is going on. He’s supremely in control of what happens inside his Kubrickian frames, but his ability to control the story that contains them remains questionable. There’s none of the outright madness of Southland Tales—and even better, no dud attempts at humor—but the WTF factor remains high. Occasionally, that suggests there’s less happening here than meets the eye, yet whenever The Box threatens to crash, Kelly summons up another haunting image or heartfelt, albeit thin, moral inquiry. It’s an unwieldy, ambitious, one-of-a-kind film waiting for a cult to find it.