The Max Sci-Fi Thriller That Killed Director’s Career Deserves Another Look

By Brian Myers | Published

The 2009 thriller The Box had all the makings of a Hollywood hit. A-list stars (Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella, James Marsden), a large budget of $30 million, and a hot new director to take the lead. However, the lukewarm reception at the box office and the mediocre critical response to The Box led director Richard Kelly’s career to take an almost immediate nosedive. Fifteen years later, streaming service Max is making it possible for viewers to get a second look at a film that deserves a lot more credit than it originally received.

From The Director Of Donnie Darko

Kelly had scored a major success several years leading up to the production of The Box, serving as director and screenwriter for the sleeper hit 2001 film Donnie Darko. However, in the years since The Box was released, Kelly has only had a handful of projects in the industry.

Some of this has been attributed to his own admission of wanting to prove to studios that he’s worthy of another modestly budgeted film, and some due to sheer bad luck. Kelly was set to work on a crime film titled Amicus with Sopranos star James Gandolfini, only to have the actor die from a heart attack in 2013 before the project could be started.

The Box Is About A Moral Question

If you’ve never seen The Box, you’ll likely be intrigued by the storyline alone. Married couple Norma and Arthur Lewis (played by Diaz and Marsden, respectively) are approached by a disfigured stranger (Langella) who gives them a mysterious box. Press the button inside the box, the stranger promises, and you’ll receive $1 million in cash.

What Would You Do For Money?

However, the stranger reveals a caveat to receiving the prize money. Press the button, and someone that they do not know will die. The plot of The Box takes a good number of unpredictable twists and turns after Norma presses the button, and the young family sees a horrific fate unfold before their very eyes.

The Twilight Zone Episode

The Box was conceived from a short story written by acclaimed horror and science fiction writer Richard Matheson in 1970. Matheson’s original story, Button, Button, was turned into a radio show in the late 1970s. In 1986, a screenplay was written based on the story for an episode of the revived version of The Twilight Zone.

A Box Office Bomb

The theatrical version of Matheson’s story debuted in 2009 and wasn’t a favorite of critics. Though Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars, other critics cited poor editing and the sense of the film being more of a pet project for Kelly as reasons for their dislike of The Box. Audiences at the time largely agreed as box office receipts led to barely making back the film’s budget.

Worth Watching Today

The Box is certainly worth a look 15 years later, despite the lack of enthusiasm it received in 2009. The soundtrack alone should tempt a good number of curiosity seekers. Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of the pop band Arcade Fire teamed with composer Owen Pallett for a film score that more than redeems any of the film’s minor shortcomings that critics pointed out.

The Box can be streamed on Max, leaving the merits of this unsung film to be determined by the fresh sets of eyes of a new generation. If you want a deep dive into the film, we also suggest the episode of the podcast GenreVision!