In an interview right here on IFC.com last week, Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko,” “Southland Tales”) claimed his new movie “The Box” — which came out last Friday — was intended to be more linear and commercial, paving the way for future studio work. The fact that Kelly actually believes this is tribute to the fact that he’s living in another world, possibly one of the many alternate universes that always seem to pop up in his movies. The film I saw in a nearly deserted auditorium last night is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “normal.” It is completely unhinged and — despite the fact that it’s received mostly mixed-to-negative reviews — you should consider seeing it, partly because there’s not much else out right now, partly because it’s a truly unique experience and it’s not boring. WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.
In terms of unexpected plot developments, the only thing I’ve heard of this year that could compare for nonsensical surprises is “Knowing”. “The Box”‘s theme is embarrassingly simple: the American middle class, as represented by the married Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, is built on the selfish, destructive impulses of consumerism that can be pursued at the peril of humanity, powered by mechanisms that aren’t readily apparent. End. What’s curious are the lengths Kelly will go to dress up this fairly-standard anti-capitalist critique. In mechanics more complicated than I can recount in this space, what basically happens is a bunch of aliens (or maybe gods, OMG) inhabiting human bodies proceed to run morality tests on guileless humans to figure out whether or not they should destroy the planet. These aliens are extremely humorless and like to quote Sartre: at one point, I seriously thought Diaz and Marsden were just being hounded by remarkably well-coordinated rogue existentialists.
In “Donnie Darko” and “Southland Tales,” Kelly could justify his plots to a point — which invariably involve wormholes and time travel — by claiming they were more or less grounded in the parts of quantum physics he got from reading Stephen Hawking. “The Box” is beyond science, if not good and evil; it not only presupposes wormholes and time travel, but aliens and an afterlife as well. Which is what makes Kelly interesting: like Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and “Nixon,” he’s arranging a narrative of American life where dark undercurrents are being manipulated by many swaths of the government working together. But for Kelly, in all three movies, the agencies aren’t actually conspiring against the public; they’re just trying to keep up with larger forces way outside their control (a really odd conclusion for a movie set in 1976 — prime post-Watergate fall-out time — to reach).
He’s consistent to a fault: all three of Kelly’s movies begin with someone waking up and end with someone who’s been through all of the movie’s events but doesn’t really comprehend what they just experienced, staring out into space traumatized. Kelly uses wormholes the same way Wes Anderson uses ridiculously intricate sets and P.T. Anderson uses lens flare; he just doesn’t know how to build a story without sci-fi grammar. If that means he winds up with an ending that splits the difference between the finales of “The Abyss” and “Se7en” (box and all, har har), he’s still trying to process the world through a set of fixations that are unique, kind of stupid and more successful at integrating genuinely creepy Lynchian moments into glossy production values than anyone yet.
If that doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time — well, sure. This is basically an insane morality play that isn’t “good” in any real sense. But we’re staring down a winter of “Invictus” and “It’s Complicated” and Lord knows what else; a little mad ambition (minus “Southland Tales”‘ jejune “political commentary”) is pretty much all that’s left this year, and your ironic inner pop scholar will inevitably end up watching it on TNT in three years’ time anyway, staring in the same WTF daze you could be getting right now.
[Frank Langella and Cameron Diaz in “The Box,” Warner Bros., 2009]