An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Friday, November 6, 2009

Mad worlds: Richard Kelly's THE BOX

Though it lacks the vividness and depth of feeling that made Donnie Darko a contemporary classic, The Box belatedly confirms Richard Kelly's gift for creating mind-bending tales of both personal and cosmic disorder. Like Kelly's debut and its colossally misguided follow-up Southland Tales, this is a confusing film that I wish came with a user's manual; I'll have to see it again before I can determine if its narrative convolutions make some kind of sense or are merely red herrings. I suspect it's a little from column A and a little from column B, but it hardly matters. Kelly has crafted a deeply involving, unnerving, and singular sci-fi/horror film—and he's done it, for the first time, from within the trenches of the studio system.

When I heard that Richard Kelly was adapting a Richard Matheson story for his next film, I thought it would be an opportunity for him to take a back-to-basics approach and rein himself in after the miserable excesses of Southland Tales. Yes and no. While the what-would-you-do morality drama of the premise does ground Kelly to a certain degree, expanding the original story to feature length gives him ample room to explore the stratosphere of his own vast imagination. After the expected tension produced by Matheson's set-up—Frank Langella (deliciously creepy in the tradition of genteel, matter-of-fact monsters) shows up at a nice family's house with the button that'll give them a million a dollars but ensure a stranger's death—Kelly's script veers into bizarre blind alleys and ambiguous sci-fi conspiracy-theory madness. His obsession with water imagery (remember Donnie's weird projectile liquids) shows up in a breathtaking sequence that verges on the psychedelic. The middle portion of the film resembles a fever dream.

And yet, because this is a studio film—or maybe just because Kelly learned his lesson after last time—this weirdness doesn't sink the movie. The key to The Box's success is that it's filled with relatively traditional scares. From the first reel Kelly plants little suggestions that some malevolent forces are intruding on the characters. Kelly's tone is one of dread, of perpetually creeping mystery and terror. Here is a film in which the simple pleasures of old-fashioned horror storytelling rub up against the wild eccentricities of an outrĂ© fantasist. The result is ungainly at times, but it works, and as more than just a prepackaged cult commodity.

As in Donnie Darko, Kelly is committed to evoking the suburban details of a particular time, in this case the 1970s. Steven Poster's cinematography bathes the characters in a halo-ish glow that signifies at once nostalgia for a bygone era and the presence of cosmic forces interfering in the lives of ordinary people. Kelly's framing is precise and chosen for maximum creepiness; he seems to be in total control, even when the plot runs off the rails.

If there's something missing from The Box, it's the absence of Donnie Darko's emotional richness—the one area in which Kelly doesn't seem to be operating at full potential. But this is somewhat rectified in the film's haunting, if not exactly unpredictable, conclusion. Kelly has at last made a worthy follow-up to his debut: once again, the dreams in which he's dying are the best he's ever had.

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