by Tony Dayoub
The Box starts with a concept that appeals to most people's love for mystery: an anonymous gift left on a suburban doorstep belonging to the Lewis family. Wrapped all in brown paper, it arrives just before the moment private school teacher Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) discovers her son's tuition will no longer be a discounted perk. That same morning, husband Arthur (James Marsden) is floored by the news that he will not be accepted into NASA's astronaut program. Later that day, Norma stares at the unwrapped gift—a large brown box gilded in silvery aluminum with a big red button locked under a glass dome—waiting for the arrival of a Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) to give her the key and explain what this gift is for. Mr. Steward tells Norma pushing the button will kill someone in the world—who she doesn't know—and reward her with $1 million in exchange. With these early scenes, director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) has masterfully opened enough avenues in the dense plot to provide a puzzle as suspenseful and intriguing as the mysterious box of the film's title.
The actors are uniformly excellent. Diaz, often typecast as the ditzy heroine, is convincing as a suburban philosophy teacher and mother who has gotten comfortable with the suppressed desperation of a woman who's used to putting her dreams away for another day. The extremely underrated Marsden behaves the way a man in this situation probably would: not raving like a maniac in the vein of Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), trying to convince the world of a new hidden conspiracy underneath; no, Marsden lapses into a double life, putting on a front of complacency for his coworkers and family as he tries to rationalize a logical explanation for the events sweeping all about him. Langella does his best to elevate a thankless expository role by modulating his performance to a degree of understatement that makes all of the preposterous story points easier to swallow.
Richard Matheson's original story "Button, Button" is the source material for Kelly's adaptation. The Box takes quite a departure from the central hook of the story: the moral implications of deciding whether to press that button. Kelly introduces elements into the story designed to expand a slight story into a full-length feature film. And at first, all of the gobbledygook about aliens, the NSA, and NASA's Viking mission is genuinely interesting. But all of these engaging subplots start to strangle the original moral dilemma that made Matheson's story so compelling. And worst of all, they end up being narrative non-sequiturs, story avenues that reach an unresolvable dead-end.
Midway through The Box, Arthur and Norman take the box apart to examine its innards. They hope to glean some kind of answer about the box's capabilities by figuring out its mechanisms. What they end up finding is a rather disappointing absence of any machinery. Ultimately, The Box is just like its eponymous device, rather ornate in appearance, but ultimately hollow inside.