‘The Box’: Which End’s Up? By Kurt Loder

Cameron Diaz and James Marsden in a sci-fi murkfest.

“The Box” is an overlong mess of a movie that’s nevertheless eerie and unsettling. You walk away from it feeling befuddled but definitely weirded-out. The picture is based on a 1970 short story by Richard Matheson that was later turned into a “Twilight Zone” episode — which would be just about the right length for a filmic adaptation. In transforming this crisply-told tale into a nearly two-hour movie, though, director Richard Kelly has crammed it with so much additional narrative that the film feels on the verge of exploding at any moment.

The story is set in Richmond, Virginia, in — for some reason — 1976. Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) are feeling a financial pinch even though both have good jobs. He works for NASA; she’s employed as a lit teacher in a private school. Arthur had hoped to become an astronaut, but he’s just received word that he failed the psychological test. (This setback, never explored, has no bearing on the story; and another bolted-on plot element — a disability that causes Norma to walk with a limp — has only the wispiest relevance.)

One day the Lewises discover that a package has been left on their doorstep. Inside is a strange box with a large button on its top. Attached is a note announcing that a Mr. Steward will soon pay them a visit. Steward (Frank Langella) duly arrives and proves to be an alarming character — a large part of his face has been burned away, the result of a terrible fire. He explains that pushing the button on the box will result in the death of someone, somewhere, whom Arthur and Norma don’t know. Steward says that if they elect to do this, he — or his “employers” — will give them one-million dollars. Arthur is against it — what if the person they kill is an innocent child? Norma counters that they might instead terminate a murderer. Soon she pushes the button, and Steward returns with their money.

What we want to know now is: Who died? Who is Mr. Steward? And who on earth (or elsewhere) are his “employers”? We eventually learn the answers to these questions (more or less), but the director piles on so much bizarre detail — strange nosebleeds, a weird waiter, menacing crowds and three mysterious gates (one of which leads to guess where?) — that our heads are spinning before the big wrap-up arrives (more or less).

Marsden brings his trademark charm to the role of Arthur, but Diaz is uncharacteristically mousey and recessive, and she drains energy from many of her scenes. The picture’s real motor is Langella, whose heavy gravitas forcefully suggests Steward’s malign depths even though they’re never fully revealed.

Director Kelly is still esteemed for his 2001 “Donnie Darko,” despite the dismal “Southland Tales” that followed it in 2006. His oblique storytelling seems almost designed to leave a lot of viewers stewing in baffled irritation (which is why “Darko” is still considered a cult hit). No doubt this movie will have the same effect — there are several moments in it that are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Kelly admirers may find it hypnotic, but they’ll surely be a minority. Despite the film’s sprawling narrative clutter, though, the feeling of dark unease with which it leaves you is hard to deny.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “The Men Who Stare At Goats”, “The Fourth Kind” and “Precious”, also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Box.”

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