Three-Quarter-Face

THE BOX wasn’t as bad as I’d heard, but it wasn’t exactly great. Richard Kelly’s run-for-cover response to the catastrophic reception to SOUTHLAND TALES sees him repeat the CGI fluids and pointless period setting of DONNIE DARKO, but unfortunately following the over-explained approach of the director’s cut. I *love* DONNIE DARKO, but only the original, more mysterious version.

This one comes from a six-page Richard (INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) Matheson story, a story with a powerful premise and a lot of mystery. In the DVD extras, Kelly talks about wanting to know the answers to the questions the story raised. Which is fine, you’re supposed to want to know the answers. What you’re NOT supposed to do is make a $30,000,000 Cameron Diaz movie that answers them all.

I say Cameron Diaz movie, but Frank Langella is really the whole show here. His mellifluous voice, easy-going-delivery, and steely eyes make him perfect to play the guy with the improbable facial injuries (his missing cheek looks like an open wound — wouldn’t the surgeons have given him some kind of skin covering for that thing? Never mind, any unanswered questions should be welcome here).

He has a nice, open face.

In the process of complicating Matheson’s yarn up to feature film running time (I haven’t seen the Twiulight Zone episode but I imagine it’s closer to the right length), Kelly does add some intriguing elements which play out in some nice, mildly spooky sequences. The extras are well cast for their staring eyes and uncanny looks. But at the point where the big “but” gets dropped by Langella, and we immediately grasp roughly what’s going to happen to the leading characters, the film seems to slow way down — a subjective feeling, because in fact the whole movie is rather slow. In fact, the slowness becomes more intensely felt because we know approximately where the film’s got to get to now, and instead it’s dawdling around with some NASA stuff that doesn’t seem that relevant.

I might have enjoyed it all more if I hadn’t recently seen KNOWING, which it has too much in common with. And KNOWING has a big problem in feeling very familiar too. The widescreen, glossy cinematography; the monied middle-class interiors (we might sympathise with THE BOX’s central couple more if they seemed genuinely poor); the baffling aliens typed as beneficent yet behaving in abhorrent ways; making a major character a teacher so we can drop in some subtext in the most heavy-handed way possible…

14 Responses to “Three-Quarter-Face”

  1. This one came and went so quickly not only did I miss it but I’d forgotten about its existence.

  2. Incredible to think something so expensive (although $30 mill is modest by studio standards) gets so brief a shot at success.

  3. I thought it was interesting but you’re right that it’s not exactly the version for the story to go to if you want a straight down the line A to B plot! Instead Kelly’s Box, likely knowing that there is only enough material in the story for a 30 minute show (and perhaps less than that, since the Twilight Zone story feels painfully stretched even at that length) uses the framework of the story as a pretext to go off on its own wacky adventures.

    I’ve been rewatching a lot of those 50s sci-fi films recently and think The Box is a riff on something like This Island Earth (scientists being used by aliens in their experiments to save a dying world), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the bodies being used as vessels and the nose bleeding messengers, though I seem to also remember an episode of The Outer Limits that dealt with whispy, made-of-pure-energy aliens coming to Earth and requesting bodies of the dead to inhabit) and Invaders From Mars (that scene where the son leaves the party and Diaz sees him get abducted in the far distance of the snowy landscape seems a crafty call back to all those people getting sucked under the ground).

    Then these 50s themes are fused with 70s paranoia – the way the Mars landing begins to turn up on all the television sets at around the halfway point and the aliens have a motel as their base (and do arcane rituals involving the swimming pool!).

    Plus there’s the quite heavy autobiographical element – Kelly’s parents were apparently in the exact same position (one a teacher, one working at NASA) as the main characters in the film. And his mother had the toe issue and had the prosthetic made for her by Kelly’s father too. And that’s another reason for the film being 70s set. Kelly describes it as a kind of love letter to his parents as well (which is perhaps the reason why the couple are portrayed as more loving and less as bickering harridan/cucolded husband that they are in the Twilight Zone episode).

    I think the thing I like the most about the film is that it takes a story that is essentially about a couple and adds the son into the mix, who of course if we follow the autobiograpical thread can be read as Kelly himself. Throughout the film the kid is curious and wondering what his parents are talking about and why they are so often whispering among themselves (a typical child’s curiosity about the mysterious interactions between grown ups, though with a sci-fi twist!), is left completely in the dark and unable to protect himself from the strangers, and then at the finale is returned blind and deaf (see no evil, hear no evil) until Diaz fulfils her side of the bargain that she condemned herself to after pushing the button.

    So it is about a boy’s journey from innocence to awareness that is only made possible by his parent’s sacrifices.

    It is also a film in which the ‘plot’ is tackled in the first half hour. Once Diaz pushes that button and is condemned then there is no further story – she has to inevitably die. The following hour or so involves the couple’s attempts to try and understand or bargain with the ‘visitors’, but this is all for nought – there is nothing to understand and ‘no exit’. As far as the visitors are concerned, they have no further business with the couple and so both our lead characters and ourselves as viewers are abandoned at that point, wondering what to make of it all, until they come to an acceptance of their place in the story – making it a kind of sublimated Old Testament religious tale as ‘converted believers’ (the reason for the revelation with the water tubes) try to interpret an uncaring diety/alien’s intentions for them.

  4. And to understand what they have to do in response without any explicit direction, just hope that they will be reunited somewhere else. (Leading to the destruction of the family in order to preserve the continuity through the son, who is now left orphaned, but ambiguously ‘cleansed’ by the ritual sacrifice)

  5. As a love letter to his parents, it’s somewhat ambiguous, since Diaz is all for pushing the button, and does so. I was perturbed by the way all the button-pushers are women — it’s certainly in line with the Pandora myth, but repeated three times it becomes more overwhelmingly misogynist.

  6. That’s something that, if anything, seems toned down from the original material:

  7. But does the original repeat the idea with three different women? Kelly’s characters are more nuanced and ambivalent, but he does seem to be saying that women are less moral than men, an idea I really don’t think is supported by the evidence.

  8. The women-as-button-pushers thing bothered me, too…but let’s not forget that the “original material” is Matheson’s short story, rather than the TWILIGHT ZONE episode, from which he had his name removed on the screenwriting credit. Because he didn’t like what was done with his script, he substituted his pseudonym of Logan Swanson. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4), tentatively due out in early October.

  9. Thanks!

    I recall reading a Matheson interview as a kid where he spoke of one project that didn’t work out quite as he hoped (probably Incredible Shrinking Man) where he said, “I even considered crediting it to my alter-ego, Logan Swanson, who has really written some awful crap.” I decided there and then that I loved him.

    Good luck with the book, seems like a terrific subject. What did you find was the best, least-known Matheson adaptation?

  10. There’s certainly misogyny (if you wish to write it off as that) in Matheson (It was published in Playboy after all!) Though usually in the story the grasping wives have their husbands die and get the money through their insurance, since their other halves are ‘someone they didn’t know’. We should be aware that many of Matheson’s works have women as betrayers (I Am Legend) or women as purgatorial, unredeemable suicides (What Dreams May Come)

    Remember that the film is adapting a flawed ‘zinger’ tale which creates easy conflicts between the sexes and tries to create something bigger out of it. One of the biggest additions is creating a less flawed (and more aspirational middle/upper class) couple. Plus there is a huge dollop of religious symbolism in all of Kelly’s films, no less The Box, so there is an ‘Adam and Eve being tempted’ dimension that he adds to the material.

    I wouldn’t say the women are portrayed as ‘less moral’ in the film but more that they are perhaps more aware of the need for money than their ‘head in the clouds’ husbands. Plus I’m of the opinion that the ‘morality tale’ aspect and short story basis for The Box is an enormous McGuffin to let Kelly go off into his own material for the bulk of the mid-section.

  11. I think Kelly went partway to creating a less flawed couple, but he stops short. Diaz is two wholly unreconciled characters, the one who presses the button and produces all sorts of bullshit rationalisations, and the one who makes the touching speech about her love of Langella, for what she learned from his injured face. Better writing could have joined those contrasting sides.

    Unless Kelly actually wants to say that women are more concerned with money than human life, there’s no reason at all why all the women should be the button-pushers. NO REASON. The story still works if the men push the button half the time. It’s certainly just as bad a generalisation to say that the women in the story all have more sense of money than the men (who have to earn it).

    I agree that Kelly leapfrogs off this story to create his own world. My problem is that he doesn’t bring us anything new, just 50s B-movie tropes and some recycled Darko.

  12. Diaz’s character was also employed too, as a teacher, until she gets made redundant at the beginning of the film. So she is in a relatively more off balance situation at the exact moment the box arrives than her husband is.

  13. Much obliged. Love the Swanson anecdote, although I think the project was unlikely to have been THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, since I believe “Logan’s” earliest credit was in the March 1957 issue of ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, in which he had two stories but wasn’t allowed to use his own byline on both of them. By that point, SHRINKING MAN had already premiered in New York before its general release, according to the IMDb. Don’t know that I really have a smoking gun in terms of an underappreciated Matheson movie, although I do feel it sad that STIR OF ECHOES (which he praised despite its not using his own script) was overshadowed by the proximity and slight similarity in subject matter of THE SIXTH SENSE.

  14. We really liked Stir of Echoes too. Genuinely scary, and not dependent on a guessable twist, and with an ending which, unusually, leaves you not-too-reassured. Great performances, great shocks, and strong atmosphere.

    Matheson maybe have been speaking of a Corman film. It was something respected in fan circles but which he’d had some personal issues with.

    James Marsden’s character in The Box has just been told he can’t be an astronaut, his life’s dream! So I’d say he’s in an even more destabilized condition.

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