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Home Movies: ‘Donnie Darko’ Director Richard Kelly Returns with ‘The Box’

It begins, of course, with the box, a curious-looking device on which rests a large red button. It arrives on the couple’s doorstep along with a calling card, under the cloak of night. But why?

A stranger arrives at their door the next day with an offer too tempting to ignore. Press the button and collect a million tax-free dollars, in cash. The catch? Someone – comfortingly, another stranger – will die.

It’s an intriguingly basic premise that begs the obvious question: What would you do? Norma (Cameron Diaz) can’t resist. Impulsively, as if acknowledging the futility of resistance, she slaps the button even as her husband Arthur (James Marsden) loses his nerve. Her mind, it seems, was already made up. Debate was a mere formality, lip service paid to morality. As she says, “It’s just a box.”

Hardly. It sounds simple, yes, but this Box was made by Richard Kelly, the young, fearlessly ambitious director of the brilliant Donnie Darko (2001) and the bizarrely convoluted Southland Tales (2006). To expect him to play it straight, rather than veering headlong into the inexplicable, would be to underestimate his vivid, sometimes impenetrable imagination. What M. Night Shyamalan is to last-second twists, Kelly is to obfuscation.

What follows involves a government conspiracy to perform tests on married couples with children, the drones who monitor them, and the man who created the box, Arlington Lewis Steward.

Steward is played by Frank Langella, master of menacing gravitas, here horribly scarred by an errant lightning bolt. Half his face is missing, but the experience has left him oddly empowered: As he tells Norma, he is now “in communication with those who control the lightning.”

If that makes The Box sound like typical Kelly, it is, but minus much of the silliness and self-indulgence that reduced Southland Tales to a laborious, unfunny joke. The upshot of his morality play isn’t difficult to guess – murder for money rarely goes unpunished, after all – but how he gets to it is ingenious, unpredictable and more than a little confusing.

Those irritated by loose ends should avoid The Box. Kelly rarely feels compelled to answer every question posed by his dark, vaguely supernatural fantasies, and his latest, inspired by a Richard Matheson short story, is true to form. Yet there is something irresistible about Kelly’s willingness to dive off the deep end, and in his ability to find the seed of uneasiness in seemingly mundane events.

He gets results from his cast, too. Langella, who earned his first Oscar nomination last year as an embattled ex-President in Frost/Nixon, is always a formidable presence. But Diaz, known best as the bubbly star of comedies like What Happens in Vegas (2008), is trapped here in a permanent state of tremulous panic, and it suits her surprisingly well.

Donnie Darko fans have been waiting for another oddball masterpiece from this director for nearly a decade, and The Box will leave some of them cold. It is loosely constructed, sometimes from parts that don’t come together. But for those willing to follow Kelly down all the rabbit holes his warped imagination contrives, there are small treasures to be found here and there.

EXTRAS: The DVD features a revealing interview with sci-fi legend Matheson, but Blu-ray owners get an even more enlightening treat – commentary by Kelly, whose colorful family anecdotes help explain some of the twisted inspiration that produced The Box.

***



Law Abiding Citizen
Gerard Butler’s latest excuse to flex his muscles was widely dismissed at the time of its theatrical release as a preposterous send-up of a legal system more concerned with procedure than real justice, and you’ll find little argument here. The story, by screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Street Kings), is riddled with holes big enough to drive the entire plot through, and Butler’s bloody brand of civil disobedience as trained killer Clyde Shelton, who sees his family get slaughtered then watches incredulously as one of their assailants plea-bargains a sweet deal, is dubious at best. But the movie’s entertainment value is hard to deny. Putting aside the ideological posturing, this hyper-violent fantasy about a seemingly unstoppable killer who continues his murder spree behind bars delivers on its promise of an intriguing mystery, however far-fetched. We know, for instance, that Butler has a secret – an accomplice on the outside, perhaps? – and that Jamie Foxx’s tough-minded prosecutor is going to figure it out before the City of Brotherly Love is reduced to a graveyard. What that secret might be keeps you guessing, and what more can you ask from an exercise as unabashedly absurd as Law Abiding Citizen? EXTRAS include a refreshingly candid commentary from producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel, who acknowledge some of the movie’s shortcomings, and a trio of making-of featurettes. The unrated director’s cut is available only to Blu-ray owners.

***



The Informant
With its ’70s-style title cards, hokey score and rambling narration, The Informant! finds Steven Soderbergh returning to the slick, stylized filmmaking he employed in the Ocean’s Eleven series, and it’s an appropriate choice. The story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), the seemingly guileless whistleblower who tries to take down agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland, is that of a wacky, wild heist perpetrated on anyone foolish to take the man at his word. It’s surreal, and the movie reflects that. Does that make The Informant! the equal of Soderbergh’s best? Not really. It’s never boring, and the jokes hit more often than they miss, but watching Whitacre bury himself in ludicrous deceptions is a chore; at some point, his madness becomes maddening. What makes the movie work, more than anything else, is Damon, whose unflagging energy seems peppy at first, and later like the last recourse of a desperate, pathetic man. EXTRAS are hard to come by. The Blu-ray edition features deleted scenes and commentary by Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns; the DVD offers just the scenes.