By John Mulderig
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Horror and science fiction writer Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button” — already adapted for television as an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in the mid-1980s — comes to the big screen as “The Box” (Warner Bros.).
But writer-director Richard Kelly’s intelligently challenging, if over-elaborate, reflection on ethical choices and consequences is suitable only for spiritually well-grounded adult viewers, since the latter stages of this evolving parable include actions that would be blatantly unacceptable in a more realistic context.
Slightly updated to Christmastime of the U.S. bicentennial year, this is the tale of Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis, happily married suburbanites in Richmond, Va., and their preteen son Walter (Sam Oz Stone).
With teacher Norma facing budget cuts at her school, and NASA engineer Arthur uncertain of his future, cash is short, and the planned surgery to repair Norma’s foot, deformed by a doctor’s malpractice years before, may have to be postponed.
Suddenly, though, the arrival of a mysterious package on their doorstep, and the subsequent visit of one Arlington Steward (a haunting Frank Langella) — the equally mysterious, and horrifically disfigured stranger who left it there — present the couple with a stark temptation.
The package contains a simple-looking device, a wooden box with a glass dome enclosing a red button. If either Norma or Arthur pushes the button, Steward explains, two things will happen: Someone unknown to them will die, and they will receive a tax-free payment of $1 million. They have 24 hours to decide what to do.
As the sometimes improbable plot unfolds, we learn that Steward’s unsettling appearance (most of the left side of his face has been reduced to raw tissue) is the result of burns sustained in a lightning strike, an event that also put him in touch with those he calls his “employers,” unspecified beings — perhaps extraterrestrial, perhaps heavenly in a different sense — who use him as their agent in testing human morality.
Amid an increasingly eerie atmosphere, meanwhile, Norma and Arthur are caught up in a surreal conspiracy reminiscent of the one surrounding Mia Farrow’s character in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Against this background, the shifting forces of fundamental decency, momentary impetuosity, human interdependence and the inexorable demands of justice are pitted in a mostly intriguing drama, though one that requires careful discernment.
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Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.
The film contains mature themes, complex moral issues, a few uses of profanity and a couple of sexual references. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.