I loved “Donnie Darko” and was eager to listen to the DVD commentary by writer/director Richard Kelly. But I had to turn it off after the first ten minutes. Kelly explained too much, and his explanations were so mundane they detracted from the film’s intriguing ambiguities. After the fascinating but incoherent “Southland Tales,” Kelly shifts back toward explaining too much in “The Box, based on a short story by Richard Matheson and its adaptation as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Amid the meticulously re-created details of the 1976 Richmond, Virginia setting (harvest gold, maxi coats), a loving couple feeling some financial pressure are presented with a moral dilemma. Early one morning just before Christmas, a plain brown package is left on their doorstep with an elegant note informing them that Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) will be there at 5. Inside the package is a box with a red button covered by a locked glass dome.
Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) go to work, where each receives bad news. Norma teaches English at a private school. Just after her class on Sartre’s “No Exit,” she is informed that the school will no longer be able to subsidize her son’s tuition, a severe financial blow. And Arthur, who (like Kelly’s father) designs lenses for a Mars explorer, learns that his application to the astronaut program has been turned down.
Norma is home alone when Mr. Steward arrives. His appearance is shocking. The lower left quarter of his face has been sheered off by some massive trauma, so devastating we can see not only sinew but teeth through what once was his cheek. His message is shocking, too. He gives Norma a key to open the glass dome and tells her that if she pushes the red button within 24 hours someone she does not know will die and she will receive one million dollars in cash, tax-free.
“Maybe it’s a baby,” says Arthur. “Maybe it’s a man on death row,” says Norma. Arthur, the engineer, takes the box apart. There’s nothing inside. Rationally, it seems impossible that the offer could be real. They go back and forth. And then, as much to end the agony of uncertainty as anything else, one of them impulsively hits it. And then things really go haywire in the lives of Arthur and Norma and pretty much in the movie, too.
Kelly knows how to create a mood of claustrophobic dread and how to create stunning images. Back in those pre-Google days, people had to do research in the stacks of a library, and Kelly makes those scenes look both retro and chilling. But there is nothing to approach the best moments in “Donnie Darko,” the Sparkle Motion dance number to “Notorious,” the motivational speaker, the controversy over the story taught in school, the riff on the Smurfs. Like the box with the button, it is enticing on the surface but inside it is empty.