It is well to say that Richard Kelly has a weird mind. The most prosaic and easy to follow of his three features - that would be 2001's Donnie Darko, a film for which the phrase "cult hit" could have been coined - is most famous for its convoluted circular time-travel narrative and its refusal to give even the slightest indication as to what or why is happening beyond the protagonist's minimal attempts to figure things out (Director's cut? I know not this "director's cut" to which you refer). While his second feature, Southland Tales, is... well, it's... the thing is... ah, fuck. If you've seen Southland Tales, you know what I'm referring to, and if you haven't, there's nothing I could possibly say that would explain it.

Now, I actually kind of love Southland Tales. It's a complete failure, but it's the kind of interesting failure that hits me like catnip. For every one of Kelly's underbaked philosophic-scientific bullshit conceits, there's a half dozen images of the most hypnotic, otherworldly beauty, and I still find myself reflecting on moments in that picture long after other, "better" movies from the same time have receded into that murky place in memory reserved for things that you know for certain that you saw, but damned if you remember what they were about.

Kelly's third feature, The Box, is a rather unfortunate follow-up: it is a film that has all the same narrative impenetrability of Southland Tales, with a visual style that is as rudimentary and straightforward as possible. That is, it shares Southland's greatest flaw while jettisoning its most important strength. The result is a rather distressing mindfuck story that impales itself on the smug awareness of how stuffed full of extraordinarily twisty ideas it is, without bothering to make sure that those ideas add up to anything halfway worthwhile. This is a puzzle box that, upon being opened, is completely empty; or perhaps it has a photography of Richard Kelly jizzing on a film camera. Same difference.

The film presents itself as an adaptation of the great Richard Matheson's 1970 short story "Button, Button", which was also developed into an episode of the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone. I guess that's true, as far as it goes: a married Virginia couple in a financial pinch, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis, receive a most peculiar visitor one afternoon in the Christmas season of 1976: Mr. Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a dapper gentleman missing most of the left side of his face due to some horrible post-burn scarring. He provides them with a small button box to which a red button has been affixed, and tells them that they can cause two things to happen by pushing the button: a person who they don't know will die, somewhere in the world; and they will receive $1 million. He'll come back in 24 hours, and retrieve the box, whether the button has been pushed or not. After much anguished hand-wringing, Norma pushes the box; Steward gives them the money, as promised, and takes the box, which he must give to another person with the same deal. "But don't worry", he assures the couple, "you don't know them".

That's basically the short story, with the altered kicker ending from the Twilight Zone episode (written by Matheson, who didn't care for the end result), and it's the best part of the movie. It's also only about a quarter - maybe a third - of the way into the movie. And from here on out, Kelly's additions to Matheson get increasingly bizarre, first in ways that are reasonably interesting and then in ways that are entirely stupid. I think that The Box springs from his fixation on exactly the wrong question raised by this situation: which is, in the two previous versions of the story, What would an outwardly moral person do if they could murder a stranger for $1 million? Kelly, being a fantasist and speculative writer, would much rather know, Who would set up this kind of moral test, and why? I could answer that - for it's actually a pretty straightforward explanation, if I read the movie aright. You just want it to be more confusing, because the straightforward answer is damnably idiotic.

Martians are testing the human race, trying to decide if they should exterminate us.

At first, Norma and Arthur's investigations into what is happening are quite interesting, The X-Files as played by two amateur detectives. But the more and more random crap that Kelly keeps applying to the movie - an army of psychic drones! cubes of magical water! lightning strikes! Norma has a deformed foot! - the more it becomes clear that all of this really isn't going to add up to much of anything, and unlike in Southland Tales, where all the randomness had a vaguely hypnotic feeling of watching something dreadful that happened to be beautiful, everything in The Box is just plain silly. It's also ribboned with plot holes that threaten the whole scheme of the thing, but I can't really say what they are without giving away spoilers; but the film presents too much of the mechanism of how things like the box works to get by with some of the logical leaps that happen near the end.

Also unlike Southland, Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster have checked their visual creativity at the door. The Box certainly gets the look of period Richmond down pat - kudos to production designer Alec Hammond - without ever actually addressing why it takes place in 1976 (something something Viking probe). But it looks tremendously drab otherwise, like the filmmakers were deliberately trying to avoid any interesting shots, for fear of upstaging the bonehead screenplay.

At least it has an interesting villain. Langella is marvelous as Steward (though his CGI face shows its seams itself a bit too readily), wicked but also quite stately, and if there's one single thing about the movie that never lets you down, its his performance. Meanwhile, Diaz and Marsden are both trapped by their inconsistent and unconvincing Southern accents, nor do either of them have the proper gravitas to anchor any kind of serious drama.

It's not hardly boring, mind you - that's some kind of achievement. And for the sheer pleasure of watching crazy shit be crazy, I guess it's more than a little diverting. But for those of us who like our crazy shit add up to something compelling - or, barring that, some sizzling style to keep us from caring - The Box is completely hollow.

4/10