Is The Box worth opening?

Director Richard Kelly‘s transition from Donnie Darko to Southland Tales is one of the more extreme example of going from the sublime to the ridiculous in Hollywood history.

His 2001 debut was a stunning, beguiling and, in a good way, incomprehensible tale of time travel, high school, mystery and superstition, set against the backdrop of a richly-realised Reagan-era California. His highly anticipated follow-up was just incomprehensible. In a bad way.

So, much rests on The Box, Kelly’s latest effort and a new take on Richard Matheson‘s short story Button, Button, previously translated into a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone (80s incarnation).

Will it confirm the potential of Kelly’s debut or suggest that Darko was notingh more than a one-off? Well… put it this way, it doesn’t involve The Rock singing along to The Killers.

Cameron Diaz takes the lead as Norma Lewis, hard-pressed wife of a wannabe astronaut and teacher at a Virginia prep school in 1976 (the historical setting is largely realised through the medium of garish wallpaper and poor fashion choices – which kind of works, much as it did in Ang Lee‘s The Ice Storm).

Her life is changed in the early hours of  by the arrival of a mysterious, disfigured stranger, Arlington Steward (the excellent Frank Langella), and the offer on $1 million – with one hell of a catch.

If she presses the mysterious button in the titular Box, her family’s financial worries will vanish. But a person, unknown to her and her husband, will die.

Matheson’s original story [well, not strictly speaking, as The Twilight Zone took some big liberties with the plot]  is played out inside the opening half hour or so (along with some spooky allusions to Sartre and Arthur C. Clarke), easing fears that a well-known tale which made a perfectly good Twilight Zone episode may not cut muster at feature length. The Box delves into the whys and wherefores of the moral dilemna and the implications of Norma’s actions.

This wouldn’t be a Richard Kelly movie if it provided solid answers, but a reliably spooky atmosphere and a pinch of the paranoid movies of the post-Watergate era makes for an enjoyable-enough ride. It’s not Darko – nothing is – but it is a thorough return to form that’ll have you waiting for the DVD release just so you can pore over the clues one more time.