By John Mulderig
Source: Catholic News Service
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
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.
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.
Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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