Richard Kelly gets the benefit of the doubt in my book. If you read my rants regularly, you know that Donnie Darko is my favorite film*. Southland Tales perplexed the hell out of me. I watched it once, hated it until about the last thirty minutes, watched it immediately again afterward and felt better about it. Two days later I watched it with my wife, who thought that it was a masterpiece first time through, and since then, I’ve seen it maybe two more times. My final opinion on Southland Tales is that it is a flawed masterpiece, and that is exactly how I feel about Kelly’s new film, The Box, after seeing it for the first time a couple of days ago.
First off, I hate the story. I’ve been a Richard Matheson fan for a long time, and although the natural inclination is to scorn a movie if anything is changed from the book, that wasn’t the case here. I went into The Box praying it wouldn’t be like the story. It’s not the tone, pacing or action of Matheson’s story that I dislike, it’s the ending – a cheap and forced ‘twist’ that feels like it is trying not to wink at the reader; a self-conscious signal or plea for granting the allowances that would be needed in order to feel that it is ‘clever’.
It is not clever.
That being said, The Box is, as usual for a Kelly movie, a huge undertaking that struggles to deal with abstractions and incomprehensibilities rooted in fantastic situations and characters. In what I feel is a pretty smart move on Kelly’s part, he re-imagined the story — from the slightly stilted dialogue to the setting to the actual mechanics of the story — so that it literally is a 50s-era science fiction film in construction**. This adds a clunky quality that actually helps buffer the abstractions, which would have otherwise manifested as shortcomings in this age of technology and sophistication. In other words, Kelly has made a far-reaching throwback so he didn’t have to explain why everything doesn’t all work out. Things regularly didn’t work out in old sci-fi flicks because the creators were dealing with new technology and ideas and that alone was enough to fascinate viewers.
That is The Box in a nutshell.
But there’s more here, and maybe it’s the union of two seemingly disparate opposites that caused me to be a tad frustrated with some of the film. That second ideal I mention is what I call ‘The Kelly Ideal’ – anyone who has seen all three of his films or even just the first two will recognize this because every one of the three grapples with the same ideas: Quantum Mechanics, extrasensory perception and, for lack of a better word, Magick. Hell, in some ways Kelly is a lot like another hero of mine, David Lynch, in that he pretty much makes the same movie over and over again, as if he is constantly looking for new ways to answer an unanswerable question. With Lynch that question is one of identity – who are we, really? With Kelly it is a question of a more cosmic scope – what is this thing called reality, and are there ways to hack into its operating system?
Structure-wise The Box is a lot like Southland Tales – it doesn’t really get into ‘The Kelly Ideal’ until over an hour into the movie. This is also no doubt part of what frustrates me, as neither of his latter two films are as tone consistent as Donnie Darko. Hell, Darko is my favorite film because it is, to me, tone perfect the entire way through the movie. However, it is also the smallest scope of Kelly’s films and as such was probably easier to string together. But where Southland literally drops the ball at times (always eventually recovering it) The Box has a firm hold on it the whole time (I think. Again, I’ve only seen it once thus far). It’s just that the path to enlightenment for this particular blend of reality-101-meets-Rod-Serling twists through some rather odd, slightly clunky situations and I think some of my issues are with the reactions of the characters to certain situations or elements of the story. Not that anything was bad, just not perfect.
At this point The Box is probably out of the theatre – so many films are opening now during this final cycle of the fiscal theatrical year that there simply will not be room left for it anywhere other than perhaps the occasional second-run theaters. And let’s face it, for the most part The Box whimpered through a small and probably uncharted run at the big boxes. But as frustrating as Richard Kelly’s work can sometimes be I truly believe the man is a genius, all his films are gems, and he is one of the only people doing great, thought-provoking work in big-time Hollywood today. He needs to be able to keep making movies, otherwise where are all the post-theatre bar-and-coffeehouse conversations going to come from?
Certainly not from Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, that’s for sure.
* The non-director’s cut version, that is.
** Even though The Box takes place in the 70’s.