Did Audiences Get The Box (2009) Wrong? — Diamonds in the Rough

Diamonds in the Rough (DitR, /dɪ’tər/) takes some of the most derided, divisive, controversial, financially catastrophic, and meme-worthy movies and tries to find the silver lining. Bad movies don’t always start as bad ideas, and flops aren’t always flop-worthy. DitR seeks to find the good within the bad, because the world could use some positivity. And when all else fails, making fun of bad movies is oh-so satisfying.

In this installment, we look at The Box, the third feature film from Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko). [Caution: Spoilers Ahead]

The Box

  • Rotten Tomatoes: 44% (155 critics) | 24% (359,082 user ratings)
  • Metacritic: 47 (24 critics) | 2.8/10 (228 user ratings)
  • IMDb: 5.6/10 (87,215 ratings)
  • Letterboxd: 2.5/5 (13,211 ratings)
  • CinemaScore: F


Richard Kelly’s The Box is in the rarefied arena of wide-released films which have received the damning F rating on CinemaScore, the polling service which gauges reactions of early screenings of films for the sake of box office forecasting. And The Box certainly did suffer at the box office, grossing just north of $34 million worldwide on a reported $25 million budget.

This is not necessarily a slight against the film. Kelly’s films are nothing if not dense with heady material and elusive plots, actively rejecting mainstream appeal. The Box is no different, as it mixes adaptation and allusion into Kelly’s own original take on morality in ethical dilemmas. The film may have been a box office flop that received middling critical reviews and poor audience reception. But is there something of substance to be mined from the film, something which would make it worth revisiting? While I find a lot of flaws in the film, I think the answer to that question is yes.

Before the plot of the film balloons into something that initially appears untenable, The Box presents a simple premise. In Virgina, 1976, a man recently released from a burn ward delivers an unmarked package to a suburban family of three. Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) open the box to reveal, well, another box. It is a “button unit” consisting of nothing but a red button. Along with the unit is a note informing the couple that a Mr. Steward will be contacting them at 5:00 PM.

Later that day, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) does just that. Returning to the Lewis home, Steward tells Norma that she has 24 hours to make a decision: press the button or not. If she presses the button, the Lewis family will receive $1 million tax free, but also a person they do not know will die. If they do nothing, Steward returns for the box, and the Lewis’s are left with only a $100 bill to show for their inaction. Of course, after much deliberation, Norma presses the button, thereby allowing the film The Box to have a full narrative structure.

The Box is based on a short story written by Richard Matheson entitled “Button, Button.” Matheson, a writer for the original run of The Twilight Zone, went on to adapt “Button, Button” for the first revival of the anthology show which ran in the 1980s. This episode, aside from some histrionic displays of acting, plays out similarly to the first act of The Box.

Matheson’s story, in turn, was based on an ethical dilemma posed by François-René de Chateaubriand and made famous by Balzac. “The Mandarin paradox” poses the question as to what the ramifications would be if a person in Europe could, through a supernatural force of will, kill a person in China and inherit their fortune without ever leaving Europe and, thus, never being held responsible for the crime.

I think the major issue with The Box is that it ignores the central conceit of the Mandarin paradox for much of its midsection. And even as it engages with the paradox’s ethical quandary in its first act, it fails to truly establish the paradox’s major ethical concern until the final act, by which time I am sure many viewers had already given up. I will admit, I was part of that camp on my first viewing of the film, and after a second viewing I still see it as a glaring issue. The film rapidly establishes the family’s immediate need for money in the form of the school in which Norma works changing employee tuition benefits (which would theoretically affect her child’s ability to attend the school) and Arthur being denied a promotion to the astronaut program at NASA. But this is after showing off Arthur’s brand new Corvette sports car.

The family is not in danger of losing financial stability. With the film’s premise being what it is, a viewer may presume that the script will provide some drastic reason why the button should be pushed (e.g. one or both parents lose their job, as opposed to the minor inconveniences posed in the film). With this out the window, it appears like any ability for the film to make a commentary on class mobility is gone.

Kelly choosing not to do this, though, is exactly in line with what Chateaubriand’s quandary is illustrating. Arthur and Norma’s deliberations over whether or not to push the button have very little to do with the ethical complication of ending another person’s life. Indeed, this does not factor into the conversation at all until the eleventh hour is upon them and Norma pushes the button. Instead, their hangups are solely on whether the ramifications of pushing the button are worth indulging in the comforts that money can provide. Both parents are gainfully employed—even without the tuition waiver and astronaut promotion, it appears as though they can support their child with ease and remain comfortable in their upper middle class suburban home. Within their conversation about their decision, Norma even mentions how they frivolously spend too much money. Their desires to move on from suburbia to something better is truly what is driving them.

This is what is at the heart of Chateaubriand’s dilemma. Unlike the famous trolley problem, which contends with the ethical paradox of saving one life over another (or saving multiple lives over one life, but you have to commit the actus reus that kills the lone person), the Mandarin paradox is about what the actor can gain from the ethical concern at hand. Legally speaking, pushing the button is probably enough of an actus reus to make the couple complicit in the murder of an individual, even if they do not kill the person themselves. Of course, the entire point of the dilemma is to eliminate punitive ramifications from the equation, but it is nevertheless clear from the outset that pushing the button makes one an accessory to an act of murder (or, at the very least, a conspiracy to commit murder).

(It should probably be noted at this point that I have very, very little knowledge of criminal law. I took one class on it, years ago, and I am now recklessly throwing out jargon which I may be using somewhat incorrectly).

The dilemma is not about questioning the rightness of the action; it is about evaluating the wrongness of the choices. More specifically, it is about examining the loss of morality that takes place during the evaluation of the choices. In the absence of a force which would connect you to a crime, would you commit that crime knowing that as a result you could only stand to gain?

The issue with The Box is that it presents the Lewises as our heroes. Norma and Arthur are dual protagonists whom we follow from beginning to end. We are meant to be invested in their story, which is difficult to do when, at the outset, we are presented with financially stable people who make a choice that enhances their wealth at the mortal expense of another person. This can be a tough pill to swallow. Which is not to say that you cannot have unlikable protagonists, but when you are following potentially unlikable protagonists into a cosmic, Truman Show-esque existentialist nightmare it can get understandably easy to give up on the film altogether.

So while The Box may be ineffective when it comes to establishing and elaborating on the Mandarin paradox, it does ultimately bring Chateaubriand’s idea full circle in the film’s conclusion. Although, this too is rather clunky.

Before grappling with this climax, however, it may be prudent to focus some attention on the film’s unwieldy midsection, as I have a funny feeling that this is where the film loses a lot of viewers. Mainly, this is because the “fun and games” portion of the script is a wild ride into a heightened sci-fi conspiracy that may or may not involve martians and/or gods.

To be honest, I chalk up the Mars “subplot” (it’s more like background noise) and background references to lunar travel as somewhat of a feint, a red herring pointing to a more The Twilight Zone reveal that the film does not ultimately provide. Then again, the lightning through-line with Steward could provide some evidence of extra-terrestrial control, I guess. As for the references to God-like control, I don’t exactly know what to do with them. I am not particularly well-versed in Greek and Roman mythologies, but hearing a name like Clymene certainly gave me pause. Indeed, it is a name used throughout Greek myth, and it is certainly not a coincidental name choice on Kelly’s part.

One instance of the name Clymene in Greek myth is an Oceanid who was the wife of Iapetus. Clymene being the wife of Steward in the film, Iapetus would be the corollary to Steward in this case. It sort of connects. Iapetus personified the connection between Heaven and Earth, which Steward appears to do to some extent in the film. He is the conduit by which whatever controlling power communicates with everyday citizens of Earth (the word he uses is “vessel”). Perhaps this is what Kelly was going for, but beyond that connection I am in the dark about mythological connections.

Either way, Kelly is clearly packing a lot of iconography and cultural ephemera into the midsection of this film, and it is enough informational stimuli to blind someone, through boredom or frustration or some other factor, to the substance Kelly is trying to provide. Again, this was me on my first viewing. Frustration was the culprit, as it becomes hard to find a reason to bother with The Box when the film seems to stop caring about the box.

Indeed, the financial situation on which the initial quandary depends becomes a non-factor following the first act. As people around the Lewises start acting weird and having nosebleeds, the $1 million fades into the background. As a first-time viewer, this is inherently frustrating, leading to stream-of-conscious thoughts like: “the premise of the movie is being actively ignored or completely thrown out for what might be a martian takeover plot…but it is hard to say…is it a government conspiracy plot? I don’t know. Is it even worth thinking about anymore? There’s an hour left in this thing?!”

I think this is a common complaint of puzzle movie plots. Having recently watched The Adjustment Bureau for the first time, that movie definitely springs to mind as a prime example of a film chock full of plot, chock full of mystery, and almost completely devoid of clues which allow the viewer to truly be along for the ride. For a portion of the film, The Box follows a similar path. It strings you along with intrigue, presenting clues which don’t really get you any closer to piecing together the puzzle. This could be another answer as to why audiences disliked this movie so strongly.

Yet a compelling argument could be made for the plot of The Box falling neatly into place in the end. I can’t say I’m going to be the one to make that argument, but I will vouch for its potential. I think the film starts becoming cohesive again when it returns to the initial Chateaubriand problem, and, ironically enough, the scene where that happens is perhaps the worst scene in the entire film. We’re going to move past the bonkers library sequence, as it could take up a 5,000-word article of its own, and make our way to the scene in which an employee of Steward, Martin Teague (Mark Cartier), starts asking him questions about the “button unit” operation.

This scene has the most awkward dialogue of the film, but this exact dialogue propels us into the climax:

Teague: Why a box?

Steward: Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels … you sit in your home, staring into a box. It erodes your soul while the box that is your body inevitably withers, then dies, whereupon it is placed in the ultimate box to slowly decompose.

Teague: It’s quite depressing when you think of it that way.

Steward: Don’t think of it that way. Think of it as a temporary state of being.

The conversation goes on to discuss “the altruism coefficient” (nomenclature which is a bit on the nose, if you ask me, but I digress):

Steward: If human beings are unable or unwilling to sacrifice individual desires for the greater good of your species, you will have no chance for survival, and my employers will be compelled to expedite your extinction.

As the film starts sprinting toward the finish line, a lot of ethical weight is thrown at the Lewises. At one point, Arthur’s employer (James Rebhorn) frantically tells Arthur that his next decision holds more importance than he can possibly imagine. While I am not certain how this tracks (the important decision was the initial button push, a test which Arthur and Norma clearly failed), it signals towards what is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Kelly’s film.

Steward’s “altruism coefficient” is a variable which would significantly alter the product of the equation. If enough people “do the right thing” by not pushing the button, they very well may save the human race. Norma and Arthur fail this altruism test early in the film. Arthur’s employer is accurate insofar as someone’s decision will be more important than they can even fathom, but he is wrong in thinking it is Arthur. In this sense, Arthur and Norma are the antithesis of the “Chosen One” archetypes often found in cinematic fantasy worlds. In this film, we are following a failed attempt at the Chosen One narrative (weirdly enough, this is similar to the premise of another largely disliked group of films, the Star Wars prequels…). Even Steward admits to thinking that the Lewises could be the one’s to break the button-pushing cycle. Steward is the Morpheus in a Matrix movie where Neo took the blue pill.

Steward’s second ethical quandary posed to the Lewises is effectively their punishment for their first choice. In a way, this does not complicate Chateaubriand’s paradox as much as it waters it down. But the cyclical nature of the finale is fairly intriguing, particularly as it pertains to the through-line of existentialism within the film.

Jean-Paul Sartre is invoked early in the film, during the literature class discussion which devolves into an aggressive attack on Norma’s disabled foot. The class is discussing Sartre’s play No Exit, which in a way is as much an influence on Kelly’s film as the Mandarin paradox is. The concept of “Hell is other people” is linked to the guilty conscience behind pushing the button, for one.

There is something to the shared menage a trois aspects of the play and film, as well (menage a trois being used here in the sense of its literal translation, “household of three,” not its sexual implication). The characters in No Exit must judge one another and evaluate judgments placed upon them. The father, mother, son group in The Box must contend with how the decision one makes will impact the other two. But the connection here is tenuous at best. It only really comes into play in the film’s final two shots, with the father looking up from the back of a cop car at his son, who looks down on him from a vantage point of potential judgment.

Finally, the idea of being stuck in a non-hellish state of damnation comes up in the film’s final act, connecting the setting of the film to that of the play. Both pieces ignore the more religious aspects of death, Purgatory, and Hell, in that the traditional iconography of “damnation” is eschewed for more mundane settings. The test posed to Arthur, the probability of which is skewed toward his eternal damnation, takes place in a library. No Exit takes place in a plain room. These are everyday spaces, not the burning pits of Hell.

Now, the theory that The Box takes place in a suburban Hell doesn’t compute with me, and I am not particularly satisfied by the suburbia-as-Purgatory reading, either. But their is evidence toward the latter which is telegraphed enough by Kelly that it can’t be ignored. Arthur explicitly says, at the end of the film, that his own theory is that the Lewises are trapped in Purgatory. What is interesting about this scene is that Steward is ambivalent toward Norma’s plea for forgiveness. If it is a Purgatory, the religious aspects to the setting are abstracted by the absence of God. Can Norma be forgiven? No one knows. In the Catholic Church, Purgatory is not an idle stay; it is a place where sinners, perhaps through suffering, become purified of their sins.

Although Norma and Arthur come to believe their Purgatory theory, settling on the idea that Norma’s death will be her ascension into Heaven, Steward never gives them verbal confirmation that their theory is correct. The interpretation of these final scenes ultimately comes down to what verbal clue he does provide: “There are two ways to enter the final chamber: free or not free. The choice is ours.”

The religious reading would suggest that the final chamber is Heaven or Hell, and that the difference between the two comes down to whether or not the soul is freed from its earthly sins or not. However, the quote comes from Sartre, whose existentialism is all about the capacity for human choice. The burden of choice is inherent to human suffering and the creation of a human identity. God does not tell us who to be or what choices to make. And the choices we make fashion our idea of what humanity ought to be. Therefore, we must act as if everybody is watching. (The BBC has a video summarizing all of this quite succinctly).

Just as No Exit is more about how others view you than it is about a state of damnation, The Box is more about how choice affects how others’ judge us than it is about a religious Purgatory. Kelly’s adherence to Sartre’s philosophy is evidenced much more strongly than anything religious (for one, line of dialogue said before Arthur shoots Norma, which sounds rather glib in the context of the film, is the final line of No Exit). As the film progresses through its second and third acts, Norma and Arthur become increasingly aware of others watching them, culminating with the scene in the library where everyone turns to watch Arthur approach his test.

The final decision posed by Steward may sully Chateaubriand’s paradox by adding direct consequences and close proximity, but Kelly’s cyclical conception of choice presents an inescapable existentialism not unlike that of No Exit. The Mandarin paradox decision may present no direct consequences for the morally negative action, but that decision creates an image of humanity that the chooser must then contend with. In this way, The Box is an externalized representation of the guilty mind. The $1 million is never central to the plot, because the benefits of the money do not outweigh the heaviness that its origins place on the conscience. The film takes Chateaubriand’s moral quandary and answers it by channeling Sartre: the answer to the question of compromised morals in the face of a choice with no consequences is an equally morally compromised image of humanity. And it is an image that the chooser has to reckon with, and suffer through, for the rest of their days.

The length of this article got a bit out of hand, but that is due to Richard Kelly’s films infusing multiple ideas and artistic influences. The Box is not simply Chateaubriand nor simply Sartre nor simply a religious allegory. The combination of all three makes for a messy film, but it is one that deserves more than an immediate dismissal. The F CinemaScore is by no means surprising, but it is perhaps an unfair label. If you didn’t like The Box when it first came out, it might be time for a revisit.

Just don’t get me started on Southland Tales


New Diamonds in the Rough articles post every Friday at noon, EST.


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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)


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