About a third of the way through "The Box," I had a distinct sense-memory flash. For just a moment, I was 10 again, halfway through an episode of Rod Serling's "Night Gallery," a show my older sisters had repeatedly warned me not to watch, and it was too late to turn it off and forget what I'd already seen. Going forward -- something I'd surely regret later, sometime around 3 a.m., when every other human being in the world except me would be sound asleep -- was the only way.
"The Box" isn't as downright chilling as "Night Gallery"; its writer and director, Richard Kelly, is clearly going for more of a discomforting "Twilight Zone" vibe, not surprising since the movie is based on a 1970 short story written by Richard Matheson ("Button, Button"), which was in turn adapted into a "Twilight Zone" episode during the show's 1980s incarnation. But the first half of "The Box" -- plus parts of the second -- works as a lyrical summation of everything Kelly, the director of the strange and heartfelt cult hit "Donnie Darko," as well as the more sprawling, confounding, "Southland Tales," is good at: He builds and sustains a complex, indefinable mood, a sense of regret for deeds that haven't even been committed yet; he offers a vision of the past as a concrete place that can be revisited, unironically and not just in our hazy memories; and his visual sense -- from the way he uses the actors' faces to make offhand but resonant observations about morality and conscience, to his portrayal of an airplane hangar as a cavernous, unwelcoming faux-heaven -- is sophisticated without being too fussy.
Kelly is devoted to telling his stories visually -- except when he's not. And the second half of "The Box," unfortunately, underscores everything Kelly, as a filmmaker, wants to be and just can't: His desire to overcomplicate and overexplain threatens to crush the delicacy of his other gifts. At the ominous beginning of "The Box," we meet a Virginia husband and wife, Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz), and their 11-ish son Walter (Sam Oz Stone). The year is 1976. Arthur is a NASA engineer, with a specific and somewhat dreamy interest in Mars, who hopes to become an astronaut. Norma teaches English at a private high school. The Lewises live in a nice home and seem reasonably comfortable, but they face certain circumstances that suggest their expenses are about to mount. One morning, a brown-paper-wrapped box lands on their doorstep, accompanied by an engraved note. The note explains that a Mr. Arlington Steward will call upon them later that day, at 5 o'clock. And inside the box is another box, a '70s-looking wooden gewgaw topped by a clear glass dome, beneath which is located a mushroomlike red button.
As Norma and Arthur examine that box, Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster refuse to show it in close-up: I fell for the trick, finding myself wanting to lean forward to get a better look at it. Later, the box itself will become less of a mystery -- its austere eeriness pales in comparison to that of Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) who, as promised, shows up later that day. Arthur hasn't yet returned from work, so when Mr. Steward arrives at the door, Norma greets him alone, noticing immediately -- it can't be missed -- that most of his lower jaw has been eaten away: The tissue and bone revealed beneath -- what we can see of them, in the glimpses Kelly gives us -- is soft, pinkish-brown, vaguely wormlike, an unnerving image but also a strangely poetic one. Mr. Steward tells Norma that if she pushes the button on that box, she and Arthur will receive a million dollars in cash. At that time, someone -- a person, he assures them, whom they do not know -- will die. If they choose not to push the button, Mr. Steward will reclaim the box and pass it along to someone else.
So much of "The Box" is deftly unshowy; it builds suspense the old-fashioned way, sometimes seeming more like a movie actually made in the '70s than a contemporary one set in that era. Kelly uses long takes -- accompanied by Win Butler, Régine Chassagn and Owen Pallett's chilly, atmospheric music -- to capture every shadow of emotion crossing his actors' faces. Both Diaz and Marsden give fine, low-key but resonant performances here. Langella, too, is stunningly creepy, particularly in his scenes with the couple: His Mr. Steward has a dewy, malevolent elegance. Kelly pays close attention to period details, giving us just a glimpse, for example, of the famous '70s "Crying Indian" anti-pollution PSA. But he treats none of these details -- not even the deco-mod wallpaper in the Lewises' kitchen -- as quaint oddities. Most of these are details Kelly can't even remember firsthand (he was born in 1975), but he's both affectionate toward them and respectful of them. One of his strengths as a filmmaker is that he maintains, as the critic Howard Hampton once said, a sense of the past as a real place. For him, it's not an amusement park.
Kelly tries to gather so many ideas under this movie's umbrella: He has strong ideas about the necessity of compassion in everyday life. He wonders what awaits us after death. But he can't flesh out all of these ideas properly, or even haphazardly. What's more, in expanding Matheson's story, he seems driven by a desire to overembroider and overstate. The film becomes bogged down in unnecessary minutiae, too much of which feels borrowed ("lifted" might be a better word) from the glory days of "The X-Files."
But when "The Box" is great -- and for long stretches, it is -- it's quite remarkable to watch. Perhaps most significantly, "The Box" is a portrait of a solid partnership being tested in a particularly horrific way. In a late scene, Norma and Arthur slow-dance at a wedding to Scott Walker's version of the Tony Bennett hit "When Joanna Loved Me." The underwatery, otherworldly vibe of Walker's voice seems to waft from another dimension itself, as Arthur holds his wife close and tries to tell her about a glimpse of the afterlife he's just been given. It's a place, he tells her, "where the sidewalk ends and despair no longer governs the human heart." That's a line the strange and wonderful Scott Walker might have written and sung himself. And it's "The Box," at its best, in a glass-domed nutshell.