The most unexpected pleasure of watching Richard Kelly’s The Box (2009) is the realisation that it is (in essence) a Christmas film, distilling the dread, panic and encompassing consumerism associated with the festive period, whilst presented in the form of a psychological horror. Like most examples of the horror genre, it externalises and exaggerates the internal threat, purifying the Christmas dichotomy into a simple decision – is it about material gain, or togetherness? December 1976; a box is left on the doorstep of Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz respectively).
At the same time, a mysterious stranger Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) offers the couple $1million to push the box’s button, the only consequence being that this will end the life of someone that they are assured “they don’t know”. The film is an enjoyably camp throwback to classic sci-fi/70s paranoia thrillers, which becomes ever-increasingly paranoiac and cuckoo about the spectacle of Christmas until it reaches its climax. In one scene, as Arthur and Norma’s son Walter asks if Santa is to come early this year, their reaction is clearly one of unease, not wholesome comfort – have the couple been naughty or nice?
The film’s score suggests the former, constantly underpinning the film – even in simple conversational moments – with a sense of foreboding and dread. During the film’s social gatherings this oppressive tone continues, reflecting an earlier reference to Sartre’s philosophy of Hell being other people. In addition, the film’s dreamlike snowscape (beautifully shot in digital) contrasted with the bold reds of hanging decorations give the sense of a real nightmare before Christmas, in the same way as Kelly’s earlier film Donnie Darko (2001) concerned the sinister, fateful build-up to Halloween.
Despite its many commendable qualities, The Box remains a flawed work. The acting is at times frustrating in its inconsistency. Frank Langella is involving and compelling as Arlington Steward, his warm yet clinical management of the Lewis family punctuated by smart, self-referential lines such as “I like mystery, don’t you?” Diaz however is far from believable as a mother figure, despite the efforts made by the make-up and lighting departments to visibly age the star. Diaz and Marsden also find it hard to strike the balance between believability and self-awareness (a trait Langella masters), with clunky Lewis interplays rarely rising above poorly delivered speculation; “What if it’s someone’s baby? What if it’s a criminal on death row?”
Such faults may not prove a major distraction on first viewing, as one is generally engaged with the film’s mysterious, puzzle-like qualities. However, The Box clearly begins to struggle after repeat viewings, with the plot’s many red herrings (naturally) lose nearly all of their impact. Its long-term inadequacies aside, on first viewing The Box is a smart, enjoyable, 70s-inflected nihilistic parable of human avarice, consumer culture, and of course Christmas.