In 2009, Richard Kelly released his movie, “The Box” with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden to horrible reviews, fan fallout, and a general level of hatred from movie-goers. So naturally… I liked this movie.
For those who aren’t familiar with Richard Kelly, he made a directorial splash with the movie, “Donnie Darko”. Although Darko wasn’t a big hit, it developed a cult following and critics actually liked it (retrospectively). I will say, “The Box” is not “Donnie Darko”. The plot is not as good, the twists aren’t as solid, and it’s not as fulfilling. However, it wasn’t meant to be another Darko. That said, I’d like to analyze the film on its own merit.
When watching this type of film, you have to let go of some of your normal expectations. I think the main reason movie-goers hated it, was because of the confusing nature of some of the scenes and the fact it ends badly for the main characters. Even a confusing movie can get good feedback if it has a happy ending. This movie doesn’t have that. But this movie is very deep and examines the human psyche, human depravity, and salvation.
>>> SPOILER ALERT <<<< >>> SPOILER ALERT <<<<
From here on in, I will ruin the surprises. 🙂 I have to in order to examine the film. If you have not seen it and would like to experience it without any foreknowledge quit reading now and come back after you see it.
I love symbology, especially religious symbology and “The Box” is absolutely brimming with it. Some of it is very deliberate and some of it is left open to interpretation. The movie is based on a short story by Richard Matheson called “Button, Button” and was originally made into a Twilight Zone episode. The first act of “The Box” is basically this short-story with some additional character development. Then it progresses into essentially two more acts to unravel the mystery of the first act. Here’s the story in a nutshell.
Arthur and Norma Lewis are young parents raising a son. Arthur works for NASA and Norma teaches some at a college. One day they receive a box on their doorstep topped with a big red button under glass. A note tells them to expect a Mr. Steward to come by to explain it. The deformed man shows up when Norma is home alone and explains a proposition. She and Arthur have 24 hours to decide to press the button. If the button is pressed they receive a million dollars tax free, but someone who they do not know will die. The couple discusses the plausibility of the offer and the merits of it. Norma then chooses to press the button. The next day Mr. Steward arrives again with the money and picks up the box to be reprogrammed for someone else. When they ask who, he states it will be someone they do not know.
This is in essence the complete short-story which ends with the implication they could be the next to die. The film then delves into the details of a conspiracy by extra-terrestrials to test the human condition with this box. The tests do not end with a briefcase of money and ultimately Arthur and Norma are faced with a life and death decision in order to prevent their son from a life-changing disability. As they choose to give their son a normal life again, someone they do not know presses the button. This is the cliff-note version of the film, but let’s examine all the symbology.
Adam and Eve
I’ll start with the big one. There is a direct parallel between the biblical story of Adam and Eve going on here. Throughout the film we are presented with this test and see three couples who are given this option of the box. Each one, to our knowledge plays out virtually the same. Steward presents the box and the offer to the woman. We also know the first husband killed the first wife which based on how Steward explained the test meant the first wife pushed the button. Norma pushed the button and the unnamed wife at the end pushes the button. The wife is the primary focus of the temptation. However the husband is still party to the decision and shares the responsibility. This mirrors how the serpent gave Eve the option of partaking of the fruit of the tree in the Garden of Eden. The eating of the fruit came with a carnal reward of knowledge and resulted in death. The box offered a carnal reward of money but ended up leading to death.
In the biblical story, Adam and Eve have an innocent obedient son who is murdered by his brother Cain. Even though Cain did the actual deed, it was also Adam and Eve’s choice in the garden which was responsible. Death and suffering entered the world because of that choice. Then innocent Abel paid a price. In the film, Arthur and Norma have a son named Walter who throughout the film is untarnished by the box. He is unaware and not privy to the test his parents are undertaking. In the final test, Walter is made to suffer for their decision. He loses his sight and hearing even though he was innocent and obedient. In the Bible, Abel dies and Eve lives. However in “The Box”, Norma chooses death to keep her son from suffering. Eve chose to live with her mistake, Norma did not. (I think Arthur and Norma ultimately failed the test entirely, but we’ll get to that).
The Human Condition and the Altruism Coefficient
The most important choice the test subjects are given in this film is the button. At one point, Steward states that if enough people do not push the button then mankind will pass the test. Period. He called it the Altruism Coefficient when people begin to care more for others than themselves… sounds familiar. We call this the golden rule. The film implies that the human race is doomed because no one is seen passing this test. From a Christian stand-point this is also true. Mankind serves himself by nature and without intervention we are doomed. We need a savior to redeem us from this condition. Once Adam and Eve ate the fruit, mankind has no way back to salvation without Christ. In the film, once the button is pushed their fate is seemingly sealed as well. The last two acts are there to exemplify that there is no way out and no exit from the test.
In 1944 French existentialist Jean-Paul Sarte wrote a play called “No Exit”. This play is referenced many times throughout the film. Norma is studying it with her class and character studies from the play are on her chalk board. Then Arthur and Norma watch a production of the play at a theater. Later, when the couple make a hasty escape from a party “No Exit” is written in the snow on their windshield. At the end, Steward in a moment of sympathy for Norma quotes a line from the play to comfort her. This play serves as a metaphor for their situation. The play is about 3 people in Hell. These people are distinctly different. Each person wants something from each other and each, in turn cannot stand the other. They are forced to stay in a small room together for eternity. This is their torture and there is no exit. After the button was pushed, Arthur and Norma are trapped in a living hell with no exit. Even Norma’s death does not provide an exit because the cycle of the test continues until people stop pushing the button.
Another theme in the film is living with deformities. The deformities in the film are physical but I think it applies to our spiritual flaws as well. The moral is to learn to accept and live with your imperfections, no matter how horrible they may be. The first example is Norma’s foot. Her club foot is a source of pain for her both on a physical and psychological level. She is seen limping. She is seen being embarrassed by it. She is trying to live with it, but is struggling with it. Arthur cannot bear to see her hurt and spends his spare time on a prosthetic which ends up removing her limp. Although this appears to be a nice thing, it also serves the purpose of showing their unwillingness to live with difficulty. Then when Mr. Steward arrives, his face is badly deformed from a lightning strike. Norma later expresses her feelings when she first saw it. She said she felt love for him. Again on the surface this appears kind, but listen to her reason for the love. It was because she knew his deformity was worse than hers and it made her feel better about her own! A very selfish way of loving someone. Lastly, Walter is stricken with blindness and deafness, another horrible deformity. Norma seems to make a selfless sacrifice to give him his senses back, but again look at her reasoning. She stops Arthur from breaking down the bathroom door Walter is locked behind and says, “I can’t. I can’t see him like that”. She would rather die than to live with the knowledge that her son is enduring a horrific deformity because of her. Do you think if given the choice, Walter would want his senses back or his mother? Norma and Arthur choose the easiest way out instead of living with the consequences of their mistake. They fail the test because ultimately they allow the test to continue in another family. Like Walter, we are deformed spiritually because of Adam and Eve’s choice and even with Jesus to redeem us, we are forced to endure the law of the flesh Paul describes in Romans chapter 7 for as long as we live.
Amid the strangeness of the second act, a couple of characters flash the peace sign to Arthur. These “employees”, as creepy as they are, appear to want to help Arthur and Norma. This has a double meaning. First off, the peace sign is representative of their goal. To obtain peace. Second is to understand that the peace sign is really just the number two. Arthur first gets the sign from the creepy student working at the party. The kid flashes the sign when Arthur is forced to choose a gift. The subliminal message is to choose the number two when the choice is presented.
In the library, Arthur is given a choice between three mysterious gateways. He is told to choose wisely because there is only one path to salvation, the other two lead to eternal damnation, and not choosing at all leads to eternal damnation. Arthur chooses the middle gateway (number two) and does so by flashing the peace sign. The gateway room can be a metaphor of Calvary. There were three crosses on Calvary and only the middle one is the path to salvation through Jesus Christ.
Water is used heavily in this film as a symbol of transformation and teleportation. The “employees” travel about the country using pools of water. Walter is transformed into a deaf and blind child through a bathtub full of water. The gateways in the library were made of water. So when Arthur chooses the middle gateway, he steps into the water and is submersed… baptized. He exits the gateway in a deluge of water into his own bed. Teleportation and transformation occurred.
Unfortunately, the Christian symbolism seems to end without reaching a proper Christian resolve. However, the salvation idea continues. Richard Kelly appears to ultimately use “The Box” as a study of existentialism. Which explains the use of Sarte’s “No Exit” as well the Christian symbolism. Existentialism is about examining the human condition in actions, feelings, and beliefs (hence, the test). Existentialists maintain that the individual has the sole responsibility for giving one’s own life meaning. Some claim religion and faith must play a part in that process and some don’t. Kelly is obviously using religion but in the end chooses to place Arthur’s salvation in himself. In the second act, the babysitter tells Arthur there is only one person who can save him and that he should look in the mirror. After his baptism through the gateway, he goes for a drink and sees himself almost as if for the first time in the cabinet mirror. Finally, he saves himself in the test because he continues to exist with the consequences of his choices. I personally would have loved to have seen a savior motif used instead.
There are all kinds of other little themes and symbols popping up, but I’ll leave them to you. Many were left open intentionally for interpretation… so I obviously plugged my Christian faith into them. “The Box” has been panned as one of the worse flops of all time. But very rarely does Hollywood actually produce a film that makes you think anymore. It is also rare to see a film without a need for a strong emotionally fulfilling ending. This film has both. No wonder it flopped. Today’s cinema has been reduced to mindless, emotional, thrill rides. Pretty but predictable. Flashy but boring. Expensive but empty. Give me story and depth over CGI any day. Then if you really want to “push some buttons”, add a little interpretive symbolism.