WARNING! Spoilers for Richard Kelly’s The Box, and semi-sort-of-not-really spoilers for John Sayles’ Limbo…
Richard Kelly is now three for three. In terms of bad movies pretending to be thought-provoking artistic statements marrying SF, philosophy, pop culture, and visually uninteresting motifs, that is. His notorious and oft-lauded feature debut was Donnie Darko, a TERRIBLY MYSTERIOUS SF thriller about a boy, a weird rabbit, and something about time-travelling through an Einstein-Rosen bridge, all wrapped in pilfered Lynchian atmospherics. It also featured the line “Go suck a fuck”, which annoyed me so much at the time I think it made my brain come unglued in my head. That said, it also featured some interesting ideas.
Kelly was smart enough to take the filmmaking capital he earned with that movie and instantly spend it on Southland Tales, a love letter to Los Angeles that doubled as a hyper-stylised satire of the political state of America post-9/11, with surveillance culture running out of control and alternate fuel technology creating some kind of instability in the space-time continuum. Seeking to comment on every hot-button political issue at once, it ended up saying nothing. It didn’t help that Kelly couldn’t keep his imagination-dick in his brain-pants, and thus saturated the movie with dozens and dozens of TERRIBLY MYSTERIOUS events that remained unexplained by the time the credits rolled, even if you read the bewildering graphic novel he wrote as a prologue. It was a 21st Century Wild Palms, only 3000 times more self-indulgent and, regrettably, not co-directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
It was a critical and commercial disaster, premiered in rough cut at Cannes to an audience that hated it and then unleashed on a world that just didn’t care about it. As with any visionary SF movie a cult sprung up around it, but even though I have been known to champion all kinds of flawed but ambitious projects, Southland Tales made me livid. Kelly tantalises us with yet more interesting ideas, but these are left unformed or unexplored, leading to a finale of desperately opaque meaning. Either Kelly created an intentionally vague movie to cynically provoke discussion, or he doesn’t know what the hell he is doing. This interview features a telling paragraph:
As “Southland Tales” was going down in flames at Cannes, Mr. Kelly was still sorting through the details of his back story. He wrote the first book before the shoot and completed the second just before Cannes. He wrote the third while re-editing the movie. Working on them simultaneously helped clarify the big picture. “I needed to solve the riddle in my own mind,” he said.
I’ve heard most writer-directors say they figure out what story they are telling during the editing process, but I always thought that was a metaphor. This disjointed, sprawling nonsense – Short Cuts, as directed by a cross between Philip K. Dick and Cartman — is the work of someone with no concept of discipline. His magnum opus turned out to be little more than a bloated Pez dispenser filled with dreary hallucinations, alt-rock standards, and misunderstood quotes from T.S. Eliot. Other than entertaining performances from Seann William Scott, Amy Poehler, Wood Harris and (especially) The Rock, it was worthless.
And yet I’ve been desperate to see The Box ever since it was announced. During a recent Twitter conversation about Donnie Darko, I said that what had disappointed me most was that it was exactly the kind of movie I would make if I had been given a camera and lots of money when I was younger, but seeing it onscreen showed me that my ideas were too woolly and unformed to be committed to celluloid (be grateful I’m just a blogger with a bug up his ass, film fans). Nevertheless, you can tell Kelly has a restless mind, and if he could focus that energy and that imagination into a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, we might get something truly special. As The Box is based on a classic Richard Matheson short story (“Button, Button”), it seemed like Kelly had learned his lesson and was going to tell a simple but effective SF story with a philosophical dimension.
Sadly, that simple story has been expanded to become another intentional vague and melodramatic conundrum, this time about aliens, the afterlife, and bad 70s wallpaper. As with Matheson’s story, struggling parents Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are offered a chance of a lifetime by a mysterious stranger, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, with a CGI hole in his face). This chance comes in the shape of a box with a red button on it. If pushed, someone they do not know will die, but they will be given one million dollars. Wracked with uncertainty about their future, Norma pushes the button, and instantly they both regret this decision. What happens next is certainly challenging, but ultimately silly, baffling, and emotionally empty, no matter how hard Kelly tries to convince the viewer otherwise.
That said, The Box did give me an insight into Kelly’s filmmaking style. Or should I say, artistic sensibility, as he once called it at the bottom of this article in Variety. There are ten simple rules to making a Richard Kelly movie:
- Make everything in the movie look as ugly as possible. Film in grey and orange exclusively. A complex palette is your enemy.
- Overlight every shot. No shadows. Shadows are for those other film directors who have no artistic sensibility.
- Hipster music is essential. It will either lend flat scenes an energy they don’t deserve (Southland Tales) or will totally overwhelm your visuals (Arcade Fire‘s soundtrack for The Box).
- Direct your female cast members as poorly as possible (see Diaz and Celia Weston in The Box, Mary McDonell in Donnie Darko, and Mandy Moore, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nora Dunn, and Cheri Oteri in Southland Tales).
- After your first edit, remove five scenes at random to create the illusion of mystery in your story.
- Include visuals about water and bland CGI space-time tunnels or vortices or something. These are your THEMATIC CONSTANTS and are TERRIBLY MYSTERIOUS!
- Cast Holmes Osborne in a supporting role. He’s an okay enough actor, but it’s fun to have someone be in all of your movies. Proper directors do things like that.
- Quote clever people like Eliot and Sartre. This is what artists do.
- If David Lynch does it, it’s okay to do it too (e.g. have people standing around staring like zombies, or slowly zoom in on people cackling). That bit in Lost Highway with Robert Morse telling Bill Pullman he is in two places at once? Do a pastiche of that. Lynch won’t mind. He obviously enjoys putting TERRIBLY MYSTERIOUS things in his movies for no reason and everyone loves him.
- If you’ve spent more than a couple of weeks editing your movie, you’re doing it wrong. Just slap it together. The audience enjoys puzzling this shit out. Anyone who demands more coherence from their movies is a fraud and an imbecile.
These concerns are mostly surface annoyances with Kelly’s stubborn adherence to a set of stylistic tics. Even a humbling experience like Southland Tales‘ reception couldn’t dissuade him from reusing them. Nevertheless, it’s also worth breaking down the narrative dead-ends, holes, and ambiguous complications in Kelly’s “plot”, as they provide evidence that he has no idea what he is doing. Certainly he squanders that fantastic, thought-provoking central premise: would you press the button even though it would kill a stranger? Matheson certainly uses this starting point to make a wry comment on whether we ever really know anyone, even our loved ones, and Kelly addresses this original ending in a hilarious, poorly written philosophical debate between our protagonists (he also alludes to the alternate ending from the Twilight Zone episode that Matheson disowned).
Of course, Kelly — who has never written a recognisably human character when he can create a thinly-sketched caricature with a wacky name instead — is never going to make a movie that truly ponders that question, not when he can throw in “creepy” shots of mind-controlled humans standing around being “creepy”, or repeatedly cut to a poster of Edwin Austin Abbey’s Quest of the Holy Grail which also features Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law. That only seems to have been included to allow Kelly to add all sorts of visual splurge with the excuse that hey, it’s alien and advanced so it can look like however I want. He can also add a reference to Purgatory because then he’s making challenging movie about aliens being God and this plane of reality being a form of punishment, or something. Because, you know. Deep.
Yes, Kelly can’t just tell a morality tale. He has to tell a morality tale with added aliens. Again, this is worryingly close to the sort of hare-brained nonsense I sometimes think would make for good drama when drifting off to sleep. As far as can be deduced from Kelly’s maddeningly tortuous plotting, the button is created by an alien intelligence, one that has arrived via lightning to take control of Arlington Steward’s dead body to test the morality of humans by giving them the opportunity to chase instant gratification at the expense of another’s life. As he’s doing this one couple at a time, with a large group of brainwashed minions who gawp and haemorrhage through their noses (a TERRIBLY MYSTERIOUS visual image, that), it suggests this alien has the patience of a saint. Why test us? If we fail, we are obviously on a slippery slope to destroying ourselves, and therefore the aliens will annihilate us. Why can’t they just leave us to it, then? It’s hinted that it’s because of our exploration of Mars, but as this is not stated outright, this is mere conjecture.
Norma and Arthur’s decision to press the button sets in motion a series of ill-defined yet terrible events (including the pretentious graffiti shown above) that hint they are being punished for their decision, just as many others have in the past. That’s pleasingly neat, though it does make explicit something the Twilight Zone adaptation only hinted at, to greater effect. However, the initial morality test only really works if you believe pressing the button will kill a person. Norma and Arthur have no reason to believe it does, simply because it’s an empty box given to them by a stranger with half a face, and that belief that the button will do nothing seems to inform Norma’s decision to press the button. What happens next seems awfully cruel considering they did it half-thinking they were the butt of a joke.
The chain of bizarre events that follows lead to a heavily telegraphed finale in which Norma and Arthur’s child Walter is kidnapped, though with one unexpected development: the alien intelligence renders Walter blind and deaf. They are then given another choice. If Arthur shoots Norma in the heart, their child will be cured. If not, he will remain impaired. As Norma suffers from a deformity and what seems to be a fear of disability, the choice is easy to make. Arthur shoots her at the same time another couple presses the button, as happened earlier in the movie. It has the air of being very well thought through, though it’s rich to try to turn the movie back to being about wrenching philosophical quandaries when the middle section of the movie sees Arthur travelling through water-portals and Arlington’s brain-controlled minions stalking Norma or congregating in sinister groups. That are “creepy”.
Any emotional charge that the final scene could have conjured up is dissipated by the nonsensical plot convolutions, untied loose ends, and dreary effects sequences that brought us to that point. As with Russell T. Davies on the recent Torchwood: Children of Earth mini-series, Kelly has come up with what he sees as a fascinating moral quandary (how far would we go to protect our children?), but to get to that point has to mash any plot together. Again, the end result is a plot that resembles a blob of Silly Putty squished in a fist instead of rolled into a nicely linear sausage. Without a sturdy narrative framework to give these characters a believable reason to face this problem, it has zero heft, and the tearful, super-dramatic finale is not earned.
The issue is muddied further as another button is pushed by another woman at the same time Marsden fires. Are we to assume he has no free will? If so, where’s the tragedy? If not, and he fires of his own accord, then the button has nothing to do with the killing, and Arlington is potentially skewing the results of this game so that he can report back to his “employers” that we are doomed, and then justify their plans to destroy us. This is the most interesting idea thrown up by the film, and one that makes me think Kelly is actually onto something. Arlington even seems fond of Norma and Arthur: his final scene is riven with regret. In that case, maybe he has already made his mind up that humans are beyond saving, and Norma and Arthur are unfortunate casualties of this. If that is the case, I like the movie a little more.
However, these moments are less than ambiguous, and more like inconclusive, and this explanation has a whiff of fanwankery. Am I constructing a coherent explanation from clues left by Kelly? Or writing an alternate explanation using supposition and exaggeration from my own misinterpretation of the plot “tea-leaves” Kelly has swirled around the bottom of the teacup that is his movie? I’m all for pondering the meaning of a vague ending, but only when I think the writer or director is using inconclusive plotting to muddy their otherwise clearly expressed intentions. Compare any of Kelly’s endings to one of the truly great unresolved endings ever: John Sayles’ infuriating but brilliant Limbo. That movie has no concrete ending because Sayles is making a point about how real stories and lives have no satisfying ending. It invites speculation from the viewer, but offers no hints. It’s just the mystery of the next moment of our lives rendered in more dramatic — and humbling — style. (See also several open-ended Coen brothers movies.)
Kelly’s endings tend to mean less than nothing. Not “Oh the world has come to nothing and we must bear witness to the pointlessness and randomness of it all”. I mean “there is no ending as I couldn’t think of one. But there are a lot of TERRIBLY MYSTERIOUS things that have already happened, so mix-n-match those until you have something that seems logical. Jane’s Addiction roolz!” We’re not given enough concrete information to make up our minds what is happening, and so we can spin hypothetical explanations until the cows come home. A great way to keep your movies in the minds of your acolytes, but a boring and frustrating experience for those of us who think Kelly is a fraud who would rather namecheck Kurt Vonnegut or Jean-Paul Sartre than finish any of his potentially interesting ideas.
For example, Darko ended with a Christ-like sacrifice from Donnie, but left the reasons for the events unclear, though eventually explained by Kelly as a form of gibberish about Tangent Universes that seem to be describing a movie he made in his head while making an entirely different movie in the real world. Southland Tales ends with the return of Christ being thwarted by a disaffected asshole with a rocket launcher while two alternate versions of Seann William Scott create a portal that will something something. I think the world was doomed. Again, I had to finish the story for Kelly, coming up with my own interpretation. Same with The Box. Arlington’s actions make sense when I make them make sense, but then a bunch of other events make that interpretation false. Perhaps further viewing will make this interpretation clearer.
Nevertheless, this is the kind of faux-intellectualism that appeals to stoners who have read A Brief History of Time and Slaughterhouse 5 and think the universe is looping in on itself so that time is just space turned into a twelfth dimensional gas, man. In a way that could be appealing or forgivable. Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void (one of my favourite films of the year, and one that has a couple of similarities to the inferior Donnie Darko) is woolly-headed and naive, but it is such a mesmerising and beautifully rendered rush of sound and image that any silliness is forgiven. Kelly doesn’t have the technical skill to pull this kind of thing off, relying instead on dispiriting compositions, eye-scorching overlighting, bombastic music, and indifferent art direction. Imagine Altered States made by the director of a straight-to-DVD sequel to American Pie after he’s eaten a bad batch of ‘shrooms. That’s what this feels like.
Even worse, he doesn’t know what to do with his actors. Diaz gives yet another terrible performance as Norma, overplaying her big scenes, underplaying her quiet ones, and speaking with an accent oozing with so much Southernness I spent much of the movie waiting for her to raise a lace-gloved hand to her forehead and bellow, “Well ah do declayuh!” She’s never been good at doing anything other than be goofy (she was likeable enough in the first Charlie’s Angels movie), but after her unforgivably bad, tension-killing overacting here and in Nick Cassavetes’ disastrous My Sister’s Keeper, hopefully now filmmakers will stop casting her in dramas. Shades of Caruso favourite James Marsden fares better, probably because he’s a much better actor, but every so often a ludicrous, over-written line of dialogue will defeat him. It made me want to rewatch his triumphant turn in Enchanted for the ten millionth time, just to remind me of happier times.
Frank Langella’s impressive work is no surprise: the man is usually the best thing about every movie he is in. Though he is an eerie presence for much of the movie, even he is undone during a scene opposite Diaz in which she proclaims something about how “you wey-uh yo pay-un uh-pon yo fay-uss!”, and Langella’s look of regret is either brilliant acting showing Arlington’s sadness over the effect of his test, or Langella momentarily revealing his horror at Diaz’ continued employment. He is similarly unable to save a terrible, pretentious speech triggered by an NSA agent asking him why the alien morality test involves a box, which sounds like Kelly anticipated some confusion from the more curious members of his audience. Unfortunately his rationale is that we live in boxes, drive in boxes, watch boxes, and end up in boxes, so why not? Langella intones this monstrous wodge of contrivance as if he were playing King Lear, but the outrageous profundity-lite still reduced me to amazed giggles.
It would have been nice for Kelly to pose more questions about his authorial decisions, either to provide more amusement or to actually explain why anything happens in the film. How many people are in on Arlington’s plan and who why? How culpable is the government in this? Are they working with Arlington or against him? Why is it only women who ever seem to press the button? Why is there a rehearsal dinner and wedding in the movie? Is it just to get our characters in large groups where they can be menaced by creepy teenagers who laugh creepily? Why does Arthur travel through a portal in the middle of the movie? How much of this was just mood-setting, and how much necessary to the plot? Why is disability so important to the plot? Etc.
Actually, there is a potential answer to one question that threw me: why does NASA feature so prominently? We know Kelly’s father was a NASA scientist, and the movie is set one year after his birth, so is this somehow autobiographical? I’d be much more interested in it if that were the case, and that would certainly make the movie more than just a mixture of The Quatermass Experiment, The Astronaut’s Wife, and the pulp SF that gets namechecked in a mid-movie segue. For the first time we would see a connection to humanity amidst these dreadfully self-conscious exercises in intentional vagueness and poorly orchestrated atmospherics. The fact that all of these movies feel of a piece with each other, sharing similar motifs and concerns, make me wonder if Kelly is trying to tell a single story and failing no matter which direction he attacks it from.
It’s as if he once had a dream about water and tunnels and time travel and is constantly trying to figure out what it meant by telling different stories. Who knows, perhaps there really is a coherent story being told here about Living Receivers and how water is a Fourth-Dimensional Construct but he has yet to figure out how to make the pieces fit together. It’s this suspicion that brings me back to his movies even though I dislike all three of them. Perhaps one day Kelly will figure out how to tell this one story coherently, or to create some kind of key that makes all of the stories fit together, or just learn to modulate his glaring and annoying lighting scheme or find out that just referencing religious themes is not the same as fleshing out an SF story with a spiritual dimension. Either those revelations or he will get over his weird phobia of water. It’s just liquid, not a portal to the Nth dimension where the Judgemental Dream Aliens live, you crazy son of a bitch.
At that moment I will give him a break, and happily take back every negative thing I have ever said about him. Hard though it may seem after this lengthy rant, but I’m really rooting for him. I want that alternative explanation for Arlington’s test to be true, not just because it would justify spending money on his previous movies, or the countless hours I will inevitably spend pondering his ill-defined ideas, but because it would show Kelly has improved as a storyteller and has managed to hide a jewel of an idea at the centre of a tedious labyrinth. The tragedy is that, after sitting through so much uninspiring and downright exasperating chaff, I cannot believe Kelly has managed to pull off that feat. It’s a crying shame.