November 6, 2009
Richard Kelly and Richard Matheson
Cameron Diaz as Norma Lewis
James Marsden as Arthur Lewis
Frank Langella as Arlington Steward
James Rebhorn as Norm Cahill
The year is 1976. Schoolteacher Norma Lewis and her scientist husband Arthur are a middle class suburban couple living in Virginia with their son, Walter. Their unremarkable life turns on a dime when a box arrives at their door and later a mysterious disfigured messenger, Arlington Steward (superbly played by Frank Langella). If the Lewis’s push the button on the box, Arlington explains, a person they don’t know will die, and the couple will receive $1 million in cash.
After their initial dismissal of the notion, Norma and Arthur begin to weigh what we’d imagine the average person would weigh: What if the person dying is someone’s child? What if it’s a death row inmate? Inevitably, rationalization, compulsion and greed win out. Norma presses the button.
Is it greed though? Norma is not by nature a greedy person. She and Arthur have the usual financial challenges, and she has her own physical ones – a deformed foot requiring expensive surgery. Pushing the button is indeed a moral question though and a grave one at that. After all she’s not sleeping with Robert Redford (Indecent Proposal), she’s actually making herself responsible for someone’s death. And when Norma finally presses the button we cringe, maybe because we’re uncertain of our own weaknesses.
The $1 million dollars arrives alright, yet the couple’s attempts to forget about the other half of the outcome consumes them to the point where they can’t even enjoy the money. And once the larger game is revealed, Norma would most certainly reconsider her choice. That’s what makes The Boxso compelling – the Lewis’s gradual realization of what they have done and panic at the inability to undo it.
Arlington Steward describes the condition best in his monologue about human nature. He asserts we live our lives in boxes and eventually die in a box, imprisoned all the while by the confines of our own humanness. So the actions of the Lewis’s are not unique, they are merely portraying a larger human condition plagued with ‘knowing what’s right’ but overlooking it in favor of instant gratification. The message becomes vastly clear after we have taken this journey with the Lewis’s, and a new couple is faced with a delivered box and the same tempting choice.
Performances in this film are most impressive, not only that of Frank Langella but also Cameron Diaz in her representation of the somber Norma Lewis. The Box is also effective in its cinematography and juxtaposition of an idyllic Christmas winter setting against the evils that lurk beneath.
Aside from its frightful message, The Box itself is frightening, complete with the mounting tension and morbidity we saw in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Kelly is fast proving himself to be a master at portraying the darkness of humanity, this time forcing us to ask ourselves ‘What would you do?