Shot Through the Heart – The Box

“Shot Through the Heart” is a weekly segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week I’m going to talk a film that took me over a decade to appreciate, one that is based on a classic Richard Matheson tale of dread – 2009’s The Box!

Way back in 2009 I was obsessed with Richard Matheson. I grew up on the Charleton Heston film The Omega Man and the fabulous episodes of The Twilight Zone that the Matheson had written; those based on his short stories as well as the ones he contributed to. His fantastic ability to instill a sense of dread along with elements of the phantasmagoric held a very specific appeal to me. In 2007 we got the film I Am Legend. It tossed a lot of what made the novella wonderful out the window. Sure, we got the best Will Smith performance we could have asked for, but the spirit of the story was lost to something easier for modern audiences to deal with. I’d seen some fun Matheson adaptations, even grown up on them, but in my late teens I binged a lot of his work as a storyteller and began to feel he’d never been done justice. 

Then we got The Box, a 2009 film directed by Richard Kelly and starring James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Gillian Jacobs, and Homes Osborne. The trailer dropped in June and I casually began mentioning to a friend that I’d like to see that when it came out. We both liked Cameron Diaz and my friend had big dreams for James Marsden’s career as a leading man. We also both dug Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s first feature film, and that helped get us into the theatre. I left pissed, annoyed with the liberties they’d taken and the directions they’d chosen to go. I put the film in the back of my mind and buried it there, happy to forget it.

Then the pandemic hit. Film critics the world over began openly crying for recognition of what they saw to be misunderstood or ignored. I did a series of articles on these myself, shining a light on everything from Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane to Jon Turtletaub’s While You Were Sleeping. Film critic David Sims, writer for The Atlantic, published an article titled “Unexpected Movie Masterpieces to Watch in Quarantine,” a discussion touching on many films that people needed to take time to see. I agreed with many of them but on discovering The Box on his list I scoffed a bit. I respect the man’s opinion, but I vividly remembered this film I hadn’t seen in eleven years and hadn’t judged fairly because I was comparing it only to the source material instead of looking at its own merits. Time, however, comes for us all. The quarantine brain began to set in and I began to think a lot about Richard Kelly. I’ve talked about his films on this site before, filled with a sense of confused melancholy over the loss of his career. I found the Blu-Ray online for $3.00 and thought, “Screw it, why not?”

It’s a masterpiece. It’s his best film. Donnie Darko pales in comparison. 

Matheson’s work is represented well here, but Kelly took the material and really ran with it. The film gives us married couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), two thirty-somethings that are raising their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone). They find a box on their front porch, one containing a glass shield that covers a button. Arlington Seward (Frank Langella), a horribly scarred man being driven in an unmarked black car, arrives at their door that evening and hands over a key. He shows them a briefcase containing a million bucks in cold hard cash, stating that it can be theirs if they press the button. The catch? Someone, somewhere in the world, will die. They don’t know this person, nor do they have any connection to them, but they will be responsible for their death. 

Matheson’s story sees Norma pressing the button, a move that kills her husband as he is shoved in front of a train at the very instant she breaks. Seward picks up the box and heads out as a tearful Norma cries out, asking why her husband. He merely replies, “Do you really think you knew your husband?” It’s a novel premise for the time, published in a 1970 issue of Playboy, but in 2009 the idea that you don’t really know your significant other had been explored in numerous other films and stories. There was nothing shocking about it, nothing that made us question ourselves, yet Richard Kelly saw the premise and decided he could work with it. The idea morphed from a domestic drama to a domestic horror/thriller that incorporated the fun of 70s sci-fi paranoia films. Where once I saw disloyalty to an author of a different time, I now saw an unsettling glimpse into the future of the American endgame.

Arlington Seward is, at one point, asked, “Why a box?” by one of his counterparts. His response is beyond disturbing, one that breaks down our worlds into the most basic of premises. He replies, “Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it. You drive home in it. You sit in your home, staring at a box. It erodes your soul, all while the box that is your body withers…then dies. Whereupon it is placed in the ultimate box, to slowly decompose.” 

We’re all in boxes, moving in boxes and staring at boxes and working on boxes. In the particulars of our lives we even believe that the soul is trapped in a box, waiting to escape. Humanity is seen as a curse, a discombobulated organism that has swarmed over the planet with little regard for the damage it causes to every living thing, even itself. The character of Seward also reveals, “If human beings are unable or unwilling to sacrifice individual desires for the good of your species, you will have no chance of survival.” This is a dark thought, and one that has been on my mind quite a bit lately.

You see, we’re all trapped in boxes. Those being careful are trapped in quarantine, leaving minimally and trying to stay safe and responsible, are trapped in a box. Those ignoring any safety protocols are trapped in their own boxes, and that’s their prerogative, but they’re trapped nonetheless. The idea of sacrifice for the greater good is one that has always appealed to me in film as it’s profoundly unAmerican, completely the antithesis of what special little snowflakes we are instead of a society. Kelly’s proposal is that Western culture is so wrapped up in individualism that we are willing to not only ignore the suffering of others but that we’d actively cause them harm for money. That’s…really relevant. Seward is revealed to be an agent of an otherworldly force. As a youth I saw it as aliens, a lazy twist that I couldn’t enjoy. As an adult I read more of the text of the film and see that he’s referencing the afterlife, something he openly acknowledges exists within the film. Mistakes can be made, but they can also be made up for. Brutality in service of greed can be undone with the service of the group as a whole. Much of America makes a big deal out of their supposed willingness to risk life and limb for their country, but there’s a big difference between making that statement when it looks heroic and sacrificing one’s lifestyle for a while in hopes of a better future. 

And that may be Kelly’s greatest strength as a director. He’s long been obsessed with fatalism in the face of hope. Donnie Darko says a lot about predestination, human nature, and making decisions that involve sacrifice for those around you to be safe. Southland Tales is trippy and weird, but incorporates many of the same themes. The Box remains Kelly’s magnum opus, a film that lays everything out on the table and makes the statement that we, as a society, are openly willing to let plenty of others die in service of our own greed and comfort. He told this tale eleven years ago and it was met with rolled eyes, but now his story seems frighteningly prescient in the face of the America we live in today.

“Frightening” seems to be the correct word here. The Box builds to, and executes, a myriad of really delightful moments that sent chills through me. From the water coffin (just watch it) to the appearance of Arlington Seward, every inch of design and imagery feels off-putting and dreamlike. Nightmares and stunning landscapes that remind me of the images put forth by Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the television series The X-Files, and even the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. Several moments in the film had me audibly gasping in the theatre (I don’t know why I didn’t like this the first time), and on rewatch I was aghast in horror at multiple of the small moments. Certain images in the film even invoke Kauffman’s 1978 film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a smorgasbord of those paranoia-laden sci-fi thrillers that I lived and breathed in my youth. 

Richard Kelly’s The Box isn’t a film many will connect with. Indeed, my interpretation of it in the year 2020 may in fact put many off. I nonetheless urge you to track it down and give it a shot. It took me eleven years, a podcast host/film critic I greatly respect, and a global pandemic to make me truly appreciate a masterwork such as this. Very rarely do I stop and consider if something is a film I should toss into my top twenty but…this one is currently contending for a high seat.

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