Richard Kelly comes so close with The Box. He’s just in spitting distance of the promised land – a really good movie – and then he folds, and all the problems you were willing to forgive if the movie stuck the landing come crashing down and you’re hugely, massively disappointed.

Based on Richard Matheson’s short story Button, Button, which was adapted into a famous Twilight Zone episode (from the 80s version of the series), The Box starts strongly. The first act is essentially a retelling of the familiar story: a man comes to a suburban home and offers a husband and wife a deal; if they push the button on a box he gives them, they will receive one million dollars (tax free), but someone they don’t know will die. The button gets pushed and, depending on the version you’re familiar with, there are consequences. In the original Matheson story the husband dies (see, the wife may have married the dude, but she didn’t really know him. Kelly makes a nice nod to this ending in the movie), on The Twilight Zone the man returns and tells the couple he’s going to deliver the box to someone else… someone they don’t know. Dun dun dun!

Kelly’s (admittedly clever) idea is to go beyond the ending presented on The Twilight Zone. The couple – here played by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden – try to figure out who is behind this fucked up box and how to get themselves out of the situation in which their greed has placed them. Kelly zooms back the focus in big, intriguing ways – how is the box related to the Mars Viking lander work that Marsden’s character has done (the movie’s a period piece, set in 1976), and how are a whole host of people in their Virginia town involved? – and for a while The Box really hums, building up tension and mystery, all wrapped in a truly beautifully shot package.

I really enjoyed the original version of Donnie Darko; the film’s mysteries felt almost religious in the ways they couldn’t be quite explained, in the ways that they felt like edges of a larger puzzle that we couldn’t quite grasp. The director’s cut of the movie fucked the whole thing up, making the film impossibly explicit and mundane. He does the same thing with The Box, and he even uses the same lame device, a book. In this film there’s an honest to god instruction manual that doesn’t just explain everything, it contains diagrams. But even with that, and even with a ridiculous info dump speech or two from Frank Langella (essentially being “You wonder why this is happening? This is why this is happening! Also this! And this is what could happen next!”) the film works. It gets creaky as layer after layer is added, but it works. And then it gets to the last five minutes. There’s no way to explain what happens without spoiling the entirety of the film, but essentially Kelly throws out not just the theme of the movie but the basic narrative sense to get a strong emotional beat at the end. What’s worst of all is that the emotional beat he gets isn’t as strong as it should be, so not only is he fucking the thematic elements of the whole film, he’s doing it for something that doesn’t really work. 

That really bummed me out. It was thrilling to get sucked into the film; Kelly has such an innate understanding of tension and suspense that he keeps you on the edge of your seat in scenes that are on their surface totally mundane. He slips dread into almost every frame, and the film’s 1970s design is dripping with threat. The Box isn’t quite a slow burn but it is a film that’s all about going in circles, and Kelly’s masterful direction keeps you from paying too much attention to the fact that the story isn’t really moving forward at the rate you might want it to be. The build throughout the second act is intense and powerful, and having that all deflated at the end left me more sad than angry.

Kelly gets terrific performances out Diaz and Marsden – possibly the best I’ve seen Marsden give, and one with real range and vulnerability – but the hero in The Box is Frank Langella. Playing the creepily disfigured Arlington Steward, bearer of the box, Langella’s dark chocolate voice is how the snake in the Garden of Eden must have sounded. He’s perfectly polite and reasonable, and he’s all the more terrifying for it. The disfigurement – half of his face has been burnt away – is a technical marvel; another critic at my screening said it beat the pants off Two-Face in The Dark Knight and it’s hard to see how there’s room for disagreement with that statement. And even with a big chunk of his face not at his disposal, Langella manages to pull off moments of sublime subtlety; it bums me out that there’s a whole generation who just identifies him with Skeletor and Perry White.

The film’s score is brilliant; composed by members of The Arcade Fire, the score sounds like a long-lost Bernard Hermann score. While it sounds so much like a Hermann score you might find yourself thinking “Which Hitchcock movie was this cue used in?” the group somehow – science so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic? – keeps it from feeling like just a lame rip-off. It’s probably the best film score of the year; when this doesn’t get nominated for the Oscar I’m going to pout.

Looking back at the film so many of the elements work, and even the elements that don’t quite work (seriously Rich, no more instruction manuals in your movies, be they for time travel or be they for the care and operation of a box) are carried through on the strength of what does. There’s no question that Richard Kelly is a talented filmmaker – a look at any five minutes of this transfixing movie will assure you that he’s a major, serious talent – but there is question about Kelly as a screenwriter. He’s still exploring similar ideas and concepts as his last two films (Langella even makes mention of a ‘vessel’ – is that just a term Kelly likes or is he trying to tie his movies into some kind of meta Kellyverse?) but he can do that while handing the screenplay over to someone else. 

I will say this: as someone who hated Southland Tales and who thought it showed Richard Kelly to be a useless hoax (well, when combined with the utterly misguided Donnie Darko director’s cut), The Box gave me renewed faith in the man. I want to see what he does next, because this film shows all of the restraint and maturity that was missing in Southland Tales – the two movies almost feel like they come from different directors, with The Box feeling a kinship with Darko. The Box is a damn well made movie that’s tense and intriguing and ultimately a complete letdown.

7 out of 10