The Box is not an easy film to talk about. Almost every description of the film will end up as a spoiler, it's fairly high concept, and it has a few glaring problems. However, The Box also presents huge moral dilemmas and is a genuine candidate for "cult-classic" status. I'm not sure exactly how I feel about it, perhaps some amalgamation of confused and captivated. Yes, The Box confustivated me.
Borrowing from the synopsis:
What if someone gave you a box containing a button that, if pushed, would bring you a million dollars ... but simultaneously take the life of someone you don't know? Would you do it?
That's about the size of it. Would you do it? It's a compelling moral conundrum, balancing the gain of $1,000,000 (especially in 1976 Richmond, VA) against the inherent value of life, even the life of someone you don't know. Cameron Diaz plays the wife in the equation; James Marsden the husband. The offer is made to them by an extremely creepy Frank Langella. And that's problem one with the movie: The sense of dread is layered on extremely thick by director Richard Kelly. It almost captures the tone of Unsolved Mysteries, a show that could make something innocuous like buying milk at the grocery store seem like certain death.
I was recently reading about the specific differences between a mystery and a puzzle, and how humans interact with both. A puzzle is an equation that has an answer if you have all the clues at your disposal, such as the location of the firehouse nearest to you. A mystery is an evolving problem with multiple possible endings. There isn't a right or wrong answer -- only the answer that's your personal destiny. In that sense The Box is a puzzle that is masquerading as a mystery. Richard Kelly holds all the cards, but once you get to the ending you realize it was always going to go a certain way. There's nothing to "figure out" -- the clues are only presented to you to prove a point or instill dread. If you watched The Box a second time you wouldn't gain more knowledge of what was going on, and in fact the relatively simple story would be exposed, leaving only the questions the piece itself asks. There's problem two with the film: It takes two hours to get anywhere, and once you do get there you realize that "there" could have been handled in a five-minute scene. So your enjoyment of the movie will come down to whether you're in a "destination" or "journey" kind of mood.
For me, the questions raised by The Box, as unbalanced and unfair as they are presented, were worth the two hours and heavy dose of melodrama it took to get there. We often ask our filmmakers to make choices and innovate, and Richard Kelly has done both in big amounts with The Box. Is it an odd film? Certainly. Will it creep you out more than it engages you? Probably. Should we be rewarding folks who are willing to step out of bounds and make us think? Definitely.