All you have to do is push the button
The year is 1976, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) are an ordinary couple with a young child and many bills. A package arrives on their doorstep containing a wooden box with a transparent top and large red button. A note tells them to wait for a Mr. Steward who will call on them at 5:00 PM.
Mr. Steward is a pretty unmistakable person, half his face is horribly scarred, as if by fire or acid. He tells the couple that if they push the button in the next 24 hours, they will receive 1 million dollars, tax free. But if the button is pushed, someone in the world that they don’t know, will die.
Arthur, an engineer for NASA, takes the box apart, but can find no operating equipment in it. The button isn’t connected to anything and the rest of the box is empty space.
The couple begin to debate the moral and ethical aspects of whether or not to push the deadly button.
Of course, if they didn’t push the button we wouldn’t have much of a film. So I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the button is pushed and someone does indeed die. After that the film takes a dive down the rabbit hole (or wormhole?) into Twilight Zone territory, as the couple attempt to find out what’s really going on and discover the sinister origins of The Box.
Very much in the style of Hitchcock, The Box is another film that tries to steal a bit of thunder from the old master. It also borrows the time period and some of the settings of the 70s era conspiracy/paranoia genre such as Three Days of The Condor.
Another similarity to those conspiracy films is the messy nature of the plot. At best it’s a tangled mass of threads that you’ll have to watch closely to keep a handle on. This one was not an easy view, I found myself rewinding several times after an unfortunately timed distraction.
Shot on a relatively small budget of 16 million, most of which went to casting, this film is very lean. The limited budget shows in the effects, shooting decisions and set design. Indoor sets are very limited and a fair number of outdoor shots are only minimally processed.
There a few anachronisms that the sharp eyed will spot immediately. But the film does a good enough job overall of selling the mid-70s look and feel. It also successfully emulates the paranoid nature of thrillers from the era.
Acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Cameron Diaz, while lovely, and a better comedienne than most people give her credit for, has a limited dramatic range. Her American “southern-ish” accent also tends to slip and change regions at the most distracting times. James Marsden is competent enough, but nothing special. Arguably, the best actor here is Frank Langella, who plays the mysterious, scarred Arlington Stewart.
The sound has most of the issues common to low budget productions. Post-production is minimal and there is a fair amount of boom and echo on sets and sound tends to be flat in exterior shots. Foley and other sound effects are generic and sometimes louder than they should be. The soundtrack is generic but serviceable.
Just a warning in advance. While there is relatively little graphic violence, the circumstances where that violence is presented are very, very intense. I wouldn’t recommend watching this one around younger children. The ending will either provoke nightmares or very long discussions about some very thorny ethical questions.
Verdict 2 Gavels out of 5 The Box has more loose ends than a cat loose in a crochet shop. It also has some frankly disturbing ethical and moral questions directed in ways that border on the sadistic. Fans of conspiracy films will like this one, but the frankly bleak and nihilistic tone may make it a miss for most people.