Richard Kelly’s new film, The Box, is based on a short story by Richard Matheson. As a fan of their work, I’ve been wanting to see this for awhile now. I was in Borders the other day when I decided to sit down and read the source material. (Isn’t it great how you can just sit down and read something in a bookstore, without anyone coming up to you and asking, “Are you going to buy that?” But I digress.)
The story, named “Button, Button,” is only six pages long. (I should tell you that I’m going to give away the ending to Matheson’s story; I don’t know if it spoils the ending of Kelly’s adaptation or not.) It’s about a New York couple named Arthur and Norma Lewis. One day, they find a mysterious box on their doorstep. A mystery man named Mr. Steward arrives, and he makes them an offer: If they push the button on the box, he’ll pay them $50,000, but someone they don’t know will die. Arthur is disgusted, but Norma tries to convince him (”a chance to take that trip to Europe we’ve always talked about…”). On page 5, Norma presses the button, and Arthur dies in a terrible accident. It’s soon revealed that he had taken out a $25,000 life insurance policy, which doubles in the case of an accident. When Mr. Steward calls again, Norma is hysterical: “You said it would be someone I didn’t know!” To which he replies: “Mrs. Lewis, do you really think you knew your husband?”
Again, I have no idea if the movie will have the same ending. It probably won’t, because there’s only one page of the story left after Norma presses the button. I’m guessing the button gets pushed in the first 30 minutes or so.
All I know is that “Button, Button” leaves Kelly a lot of room to take the story in whatever direction he wants. I already know he’s changed some stuff. For instance, the couple in the film (played by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) live in Virginia, not New York. Mr. Steward offers them $1 million instead of $50,000. And the facial scars that Frank Langella sports in the trailer aren’t mentioned in Matheson’s story.
Having read it, I can’t say I’m more excited to see The Box now than I was before, but it hasn’t diminished my expectations either. This will be Kelly’s first period piece since Donnie Darko. (Southland Tales was supposed to be set in the near-future but, ironically, ended up being set in the present day because its release was delayed for so long.) He has a few spotty credits to his name (Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut, for example, and the screenplay for Tony Scott’s Domino). But this is still one of the most exciting filmmaking voices of the new century. Southland Tales is wildly underrated; that and Joe Dante’s Homecoming are the two best movies ever made about the Bush years. And Donnie speaks to young people where they live in ways that few movies can. I think it’s a safe bet that The Box will be a gift when it opens on Nov. 6.