Based solely on its trailer, “The Box” seemed certain to be a straightforward morality tale based on a simple, but intriguing experiment: If given the opportunity to push a button and cause a stranger’s death for a million dollars, what would you do? What we wind up with is indeed a morality tale, but one that offers up a bewildering buffet of philosophical choices and ramifications.
The white mice in this particular maze are Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz, “My Sister’s Keeper,” and James Marsden, “Sex Drive”), a 30-something couple living in 1976 Richmond, Va. She teaches philosophy (prophetically, entertaining a fondness for Sartre) at a local private school, while he works developing optics for NASA as he waits for his application to astronaut school to come through.
They have a 10- or 11-year-old son named Walter (newcomer Sam Oz Stone) who attends the school where Norma teaches. As a family, the Lewis clan is self-contained and happy, on the fast track to upper-middle-class success.
And then Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”) leaves a package on their doorstep. It contains the eponymous box, the top set with a red button covered by a glass dome. It takes her almost 24 hours, but Norma ultimately pushes the button, which turns out to be a really, really bad decision.
While the basic plot (which, without giving too much away, veers off into a creepy brand of science fiction) is simple enough, the philosophical theme is bolstered by sub-themes (the natures of love and forgiveness; the transience of material things) and some pretty heavy symbolic elements (disfigurement, the middle path to salvation, and the nature/existence of free will).
There also seems to be an encoded commentary on the follies of modern marriage, specifically the pitfalls of husbands letting women make decisions they know are wrong. There’s a certain Eve-eating-the-apple implication that slots in with the rest of the Biblical stuff, although it starts coming off as decidedly sexist toward the end.
One should expect this kind of multilayered, heavily allusive type of storytelling from writer/director Richard Kelly, he of the famously dark and daunting “Donnie Darko.” What made that movie work was its weird, underlying symmetry, which made it seem like it made sense, even if you didn’t really understand what had just happened. Kelly more or less pulls off the same trick here, but veers dangerously close to knocking down his house of cards with too much explanation.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your outlook), the logical outcome of Norma’s decision is so distressingly inexorable that it overshadows any of the M. Night Shyamalan-style twistiness of Steward’s intentions and resources. And despite the indications otherwise, Sartre and his stark worldview win out; no one ends up happy.
“The Box” is tense and emotionally tiring, but impressive in its cerebral calisthenics and tight pacing. However, it will undoubtedly anger and confuse those who don’t catch the allusions and those who are expecting the straightforward thriller implied by the trailer.