The reviews for The Box, or the several of which I’ve read thus far, have clearly side-stepped any kind of conviction about the film. There’s been a lot of grumpy fence-sitting (‘Hey, film-makers should be allowed to push the boundaries, cut them some slack, who cares whether it makes any sense or not!’) and risible ‘It’s weird – it must be good!’ pronouncements. The reviews that, a quick scour of trusty Metacritic later confirm, give the film a hammering also have a whiff of linear-loving entrenchment about them. My take is: the film is poor and the director of the brilliant Donnie Darko has no ideas left.
Richard Kelly might not even disagree: he clearly has a compulsion for film and the ability to construct fantastic scenes (even amidst the largely awful Southland Tales, which is admirably bizarre but less-admirably empty) but he has to ask himself, now, whether or not he can hit it again. Perhaps he’s best flitting around upper-class TV shows as a kind of within strict limits maverick of mediocrity.
The plot: Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are visited by a glaringly untrustworthy chap offering them an ‘interesting’ bargain: press the box he has brought and collect a million dollars, with someone, somewhere meeting their demise as a direct result. Not much of a catch to keep you over-deliberating, you may think – ethical questions surely circumvented by the money hungry amongst us, or those wanting our protagonists to get way the hell on with it and get to the good stuff – but they ponder and ponder, and the film rests on them taking the plunge and whacking said button of death and untold riches. And they do, of course, turn the other cheek and then fret. And with good reason. It’s just that the nature of the upshot and what we then see as they realise the magnitude of their mistake is either predictable or of forgettable Twilight Zone proportions.
There is an internal logic and an incalculable authenticity to many strange films. Or even just an imperceptible but indeniable sense of bona fide weirdness that validates any warping of narrative, tone or atmosphere, and that simply cannot be affected. The Box doesn’t have any of this. It really is just weird for the sake of it and any attempts to incorporate manufactured peculiarity evoke rampant dislocation and even guffaws. I like the idea of a director trying something different as much as the next man. But this is curio TV at best, something to mention to someone in passing as a watchable oddity you caught post-midnight, not forked out a few quid and 90 minutes of your life for.
So the problem with The Box is: there’s nothing in it. The performances are fine before they need to change gears, at which point they clank and crunch and all go off in different directions at different juddery speeds, ditto Kelly. Frank Langella is left languishing in a series of Kubrick-cast-off sets, the one component still working full-tilt and delivering a lost message, an eerily game counterpoint to the capitulation elsewhere: he’s superb but Kelly wastes him by his adherence to a daft premise that never knows when to let go. Kelly probably realises you’ve got to go all-out with this kind of material and follow-through with your punches – fine in theory, but when the car is speedily slaloming through too-tame suburban gardens on the way to the precipice, it’s best to clamber out and rescue something. If not your career.
The Blind Side is so purposefully painful a model of hair ruffling crass manipulation that every horrific signposted moment of it is like being hugged by an annoyingly winsome inebriated retard.
Sandra Bullock, who merely had to stay awake to convey her likable self and get an Oscar here, is a kind of self-delusionally less exciting post-Sex And The City hockey mom. Her kids are Stepford Kids, her husband is far too agreeable. They would all blow away if the weather wasn’t Hollywood spotless. Bullock, though, is the cheery, no-mess no-fuss face of arrogant, Palinesque derring-do, a talker and a doer, a right to all society’s wrongs, and a Liberal Republican to boot. She was born in a fictional vacuum and she will die there, with all her make-up and soul resolutely unblemished. She’s a whirlwind Everywoman (literally: all the good bits, with not an ounce of flab, regret, uncertainty, doubt or timidity) and she will, aided by her ridiculously tolerant, malleable family, take on whatever she feels like. We find her as she feels like taking on a giant, homeless black kid. It’s raining, he’s wet, it’s dark, they have a big house so he gets the couch. It’s all very admirable. He doesn’t nick the telly and the blankets are all neatly folded in the morning. Maybe this kid’s worth getting behind? Maybe he’ll come good?
Particularly if he shows some kind of…latent talent? The signs from the American Football field are good: he’s terrible. If he was naturally brilliant, the film would be over already or would go the other way; he would fritter his new opportunity and end up in jail, only to find God and then…and so on. This is the other model, the reverse version, where he starts out all humbly useless and dumb and ends up, with a little help from his new friends and a bit of self-belief, becoming a real asset to the local team. He Turns. His Life. Around. Today is the first day of the rest of his life. I didn’t change him…he changed me. I walked right into the ghetto and told them scary black kids what was what with a bit of sass and nonchalance. These kids would do good if only a rich white American woman with too much time on her hands would only take one on as an individual pet project.
Anyway, things go as you know they will go, so continuing with plot appraisal is pointless. This review then, is a rhetorical plea: these films can still work without working us over. We are intelligent beings. We can take a bit of unpredictability: we know the big dolt with the bigger heart is going to win, we don’t even mind that, necessarily. Perfunctory direction aside, the whole thing could’ve been cast, shot, edited, canned and shrink-wrapped by a machine. The human element, the very thing that this dire piece of cinema tepidly rides, is nowhere to be seen.