What would you do if someone gave you a box containing a button and told you that if you pushed it two things would happen. Number one you would receive a million dollars and number two someone would die.
This simple moral dilemma is the original premise of Richard Matheson’s short story ‘Button, Button’ a tale retold in a myriad of forms, in print, in short films, on radio, on an episode of the Twilight Zone and now in a full-length thriller from the director of Donnie Darko.
With money problems pilling up married couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) live in simple seventies suburbia with their son, unaware of the life changing decision they will soon have to make.
As more troubles appear and Arthur is passed over for promotion from his job at NASA, the arrival of the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Lagella) seems like perfect timing.
This distinguished yet hideously disfigured gentleman offers Norma the box, the money and the simple choice, to push the button or to not push the button.
It is once they have made their choice that the couple’s reality turns upside-down, spinning more out of control the more they delve into Arlington’s puzzling past and his disturbing plans for the future.
Director and writer Richard Kelly has proven with his previous pictures that he is supremely skilled at inventing surreal situations, disturbing dystopia and asking intriguing questions. He has also demonstrated that he is ultimately useless at providing the audience with satisfactory answers or conclusions to any of his ideas.
Donnie Darko is a cult classic, however part of its allure is the gaps in the film which have provided hours of late night discussions to a million stoned university students. Southland Tales was a critical and commercial car crash, full of style but ultimately senseless and only worth watching for the eyebrow raising Rock’s central performance (and when an ex-wrestler turned actor is the best thing in your film, you have to worry!)
With a story already laid down for him one would hope that Kelly couldn’t go wrong this time. Sadly he does and what we get is a film of two halves.
The start of the movie follows the original Matheson story giving us an intriguing and chilling concept deftly and disturbingly directed. It is also put over perfectly by the principle players both of whom humanise the ethical quandary. With a great score and excellent cinematography, the film flawlessly captures the look of the era in the design and colours.
Unfortunately when Kelly reaches the open-ended conclusion of Matheson’s original he simply starts making up the rest, morphing the movie into a mess of alien conspiracy theories and quasi-religious claptrap.
The menace and chills increase, but soon dissipate when the realisation that none of it really makes any sense hits you.
Feeling like a remake of the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers the film is over-long, at times boring and its conclusion is disappointing, obvious and underwhelming.
For Kelly to make a truly great film he needs to stick to someone else’s script and not get carried away in his own over active imagination. The power and true fear in Matheson’s story is the mystery and the unknown and The Box ruins this.
My advice is read the original or watch the Twilight Zone version.
Oh, and don’t push the button!
Additional film information: The Box (2009)