I’m not ready to give up on Richard Kelly and his questing intelligence as a filmmaker. Memories of Donnie Darko stay strong, no matter how much Kelly’s focus came unglued in 2006’s Southland Tales and now, to a lesser extent, in The Box. The premise, drawn from a 1980’s Twilight Zone episode itself drawn from Richard Matheson’s short story Button, Button, is creepily delicious. The setting is the suburbs of Virginia, near NASA’s Langley Research Center. The year is 1976 when NASA’s Viking Project became the first U.S. mission to land a spacecraft on the surface of Mars and send photos back to earth. Frank Langella (Oscar nominee for Frost/Nixon) is wonderfully sinister as an elegant stranger with a hole in his cheek who shows up — the box in hand — at the home of NASA engineer Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) and his teacher wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz). His proposition: Push the button on the box and win a million bucks. The catch: Somebody dies, but it’s somebody you don’t know.
The couple, in a financial pinch regarding their son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), agonizes over it. But it’s Norma who does the button pushing. Later, another woman will do the same thing while hubby holds back. Does this indicate a misogynist streak in Kelly? The movie gets bogged down in so much exposition that you stop caring. Diaz and Marsden look narcotized throughout. But the images Kelly creates of an alien infiltration of the suburbs harks back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This gives the alleged festivities around the wedding of Norma’s sister a genuine chilling effect, notably a dance sequence set to the tune of ‘When Joanna Loved Me.’ What a shame that Kelly’s pacing doesn’t run as fast as his imagination. Instead of sweeping you along, The Box just sits there like something unclaimed at lost and found. Damaged goods.