The Box

Richard Matheson wrote more than a dozen episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” which, if you’re unfamiliar with his work, should give you an idea of the sort of story he favors: twist endings, moral dilemmas, and monsters on the wings of airplanes. When “The Twilight Zone” was revived in 1985, producers naturally went looking for new Matheson work to adapt, and found “Button, Button,” a short story he’d published since the last “Twilight Zone” had ended. In it, a married couple are visited by a stranger who gives them a mysterious box with a button on it. He tells them that if they push the button, they’ll get a large sum of money, but someone they don’t know will die.

That’s fine “Twilight Zone” material, obviously, and one’s interest is piqued to learn that Richard Kelly, the writer/director of the incoherent “Donnie Darko” and “Southland Tales,” has chosen to make a film version of it. Having conceived his other movies entirely on his own, Kelly might benefit from the structure of adapting an existing source. At the very least, maybe a movie of his will make some sense for once.

Kelly turns out to be a perfect fit for one of Matheson’s ironic-twist morality tales. He had to bulk up the story significantly to make it feature-length — the last part of Matheson’s original plot happens about 30 minutes into the film — but what he added isn’t mere padding. It truly expands on the original ideas and fills them out with trademark Kelly weirdness. Except there’s a purpose this time, some real direction. It reminds me of the kind of carefully constructed, methodically paced mystery that M. Night Shyamalan used to make, before he went off the deep end.

It’s December 1976. The couple faced with the moral dilemma are the Lewises, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden), both in their mid-30s and happily living in Richmond, Va., with their preteen son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone). Norma is a schoolteacher; Arthur is an engineer at NASA’s nearby Langley Research Center. Everyone speaks with a cute Virginia accent. Life is reasonably good.

Until the old deformed man shows up, that is! He is Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a courtly gentleman whose face is missing its southwest quadrant, a detail that may or may not be relevant but that certainly increases the air of creepy mystery about him. He gives the Lewises the box and the instructions: Push the button, cause the death of a stranger, but get a million dollars. It’s insane, of course. The box isn’t connected to anything, no wires, no transmitters, nothing. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that, and Arthur actually IS a rocket scientist.

Of course, if it’s all madness, there’s no harm in pushing the button, right?

Two hours of Norma and Arthur Lewis fretting over whether to push the button would be a little tedious, especially since most of the audience will consider this a non-dilemma. The person whose death you cause by pushing the button is guaranteed to be a stranger; tens of thousands of people die every day; the odds are good that it will be someone living in abject poverty anyway; etc. The viewer is thinking, only half-jokingly, that if he were in these people’s shoes, he’d have pushed the button before Steward was even finished talking.

How interesting, then, that Kelly makes this mindset part of the story. The fact that so many people would be willing to kill a stranger for a million dollars emerges as a key element in Mr. Steward’s work, and in Kelly’s larger thesis. Also related, at least tangentially: Sartre’s “No Exit” (“Hell is other people”), NASA’s Viking program, a childhood accident Norma suffered that left her with a limp, a babysitter (Gillian Jacobs) who lives at a motel, the upcoming wedding of Norma’s sister, and a lot of initially unexplained nosebleeds.

I’d be lying if I said my negative experiences with Kelly’s prior work didn’t make me wary of trusting him this time. The film keeps adding one odd detail after another, and I began to worry: Is this all going to add up to something? Or will we be left with a million loose ends and an unsatisfying conclusion, then have to suffer the film’s fans telling us we just “didn’t get it”?

But with “The Box,” Kelly has finally found a way to be himself (i.e., cryptic and obtuse) while still telling an intriguing story with a legitimate resolution. The film’s ideas are dark and thought-provoking, worthy of discussion afterward; there’s some real substance in Kelly’s dense, twisted universe. It’s far from mainstream, but it’s not totally inaccessible, either.

The whole story is preposterous, of course. I’m not even sure what genre it belongs to. Science fiction? Fantasy? Conspiracy thriller? Yet even with its occasional lapses into random weirdness, it remains watchable and engaging, often suspenseful, even creepy. Kelly’s technical prowess — he’s paying attention to things like shot composition and framing now — has greatly improved, too. I like where things are going.

B (1 hr., 55 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, a little violence.)