Richard Kelly has an inviting mix of suburbia and surrealism in The Box, a moody, ominous tale that's better than his failed Southland Tales, but still too ambitious and arbitrary for its own good. The opening, rather brisk title card touches on the background of person who offers $1 million tax-free dollars in cash for pushing a button in a box that kills a stranger.
Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella topline this twisty take on a Richard Matheson story ("Button, Button") previously remade into a mid-80s "Twilight Zone" episode.
The period trappings of 1976 (around the time of the Viking mission to Mars) are in place with Diaz's Norma and Marsden's Arthur Lewis and son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) a seemingly happy Virginia family. But, life turns dispiriting as she needs surgery for a disfigurement, his being passed up for a career-changing promotion as an astronaut, and Walter's tuition for private school not being covered by her work there as a teacher.
Thus, the premise surrounding the titular object brings some intriguing morality to it, as by pushing the button its bearer gains instant wealth, but also instantly dooms an individual the bearer doesn't know. Langella's dapper and also (facially) disfigured Arlington Steward rewards the Lewis family, but Arthur doesn't abide by the rules stated by the mysterious stranger who has "employees". Another visit payed by the very business-minded, methodical Steward relates the consequences to Arthur's actions as something intergalactical is being overseen, coordinated through NASA and the National Security Agency.
A more serious Diaz and Marsden are fine, yet unexceptional as the couple who seem to be living too well for this sort of thing to happen to them before certain home loans were developed (Norma ponders about when if ever they are going to leave Richmond). But, Langella steals his scenes with a certain subdued bravado, personable yet shadowy often simultaneously.
Kelly keeps the "Twilight Zone" version conclusion intact, but builds on the sci-fi drama in a rather convoluted way that diffues the potential from atmosphere created by a knowledgeable filmmaker. Some memorable sequences involve a wedding rehearsal dinner, a library (filmed in Boston), even a big splashy one in the Lewis's home. But, there's something constrained about it all that needs to fit into a parable which includes governmental agents, Norma's extended family, and those part of something which goes way beyond the programmable (as the cerebral Arthur soon finds out).
The times are nicely recounted through TV shows like "Alice" and "What's Happening" and fashions and stuff like sideburns. Maybe The Box gets too deep for its own good, unlike his cult hit Donnie Darko which had an odd, amazing ambiguity to it as lines include "eternal damnation" and "it's a place neither here nor there". A strong widescreen visual look may go a way into brainwashing viewers, but those looking for something meaningful may rather have wished for a bloody nose.