Last night we watched The Box. There are spoilers in this post! I definitely give away everything that happens in this film, and let me just start by saying this film is AMAZING, so if you haven’t seen it, maybe don’t read this entry and go see it and then come back and read this entry and tell me I’m an idiot. I DARE YOU. No, please don’t.
Last night we watched The Box. The Box, based on a story by Richard Matheson, was Richard Kelly’s critically unacclaimed follow-up to the critically unacclaimed Southland Tales, also an amazing and beautiful film. I would say nothing has made me scorn movie critics more than their inability to comprehend the film Southland Tales. So, if you hated Southland Tales, this is probably neither the movie nor the blog entry for you, and god bless your soul.
Anyway. Where Southland Tales was a sprawling, complex, hallucinatory exploration of End Times and human’s love for human and self (very literally, in this case), with like 100 characters and a really amazing music video jammed in the middle of it, and a weird un-remarked-upon reliance on the early 90′s cast of SNL (Lovitz, Oteri, Gasteyer, Poehler), and which ends up, as a film, sort of filling you with a complicated joy that is also devastating sorrow, The Box is a taut, quiet, straightforward, deeply unsettling mind fuck that leaves you wanting to sell all your possessions and go live in a van down by the river (DID YOU GET WHAT I DID THERE?!? OMG).
So! In The Box, which is a devastating allegory of choice and Othering and geo politics and capitalism and other stuff, Cameron Diaz and her husband are awoken by the doorbell at 6 a.m. When they open the door, they see a black town car just driving away, and on their front porch is an unmarked, brown-paper-wrapped box. They bring it inside and examine it, mystified. They open it. Inside there is a wooden box with a glass dome on top that covers a big red button. There is also a note, informing them that a man will come to see them at 5:00 o’clock. They’re like “weird.” They put the box away and go to work.
Stuff happens at work, like we see that Cameron Diaz has this horribly mangled foot that hurts her and makes her limp, and that her husband works for NASA where he designed the camera on the Mars satellite. The film is set in 1976, so everyone has cool sideburns. He’s also working on a prosthetic foot for his wife, and when a coworker asks him about it, we get the story of the foot, which is that when she was 17 she dropped something on her foot and thought she broke her toe, so she went to the doctor. It was 1956. The doctor stuck her foot under the X-ray machine and then left the room for a second and forgot all about her. So she sat under the x-ray machine for forever before someone realized. Her foot was destroyed and they had to amputate all the toes and do a horrible skin graft where she had to sit for a month with her foot buried in her inner thigh, tree-pose style. Disturbing!
Then the husband gets his “astronaut letter” informing him whether or not he can be an astronaut. It says: NOT! Everyone is shocked, even his boss, everyone thought this was just a formality. He has failed some test. He is devastated. “What am I supposed to do with my life now,” he asks forlornly. Also at Cameron Diaz’s job (she’s a teacher at a fancy prep school) she is informed that they are canceling the teacher tuition waiver, so starting next semester her son can no longer be in this fancy school. She is devastated. And so the stage is set for dark doings.
So, 5:00 comes around, and Diaz is home alone, stressing out about her foot and her son and how her husband can’t be an astronaut and everything. The doorbell rings, and it’s an old man with a horribly mangled face. He introduces himself as Mr. Steward, the man who left the box on the doorstep that morning, and asks if he can come in. They sit at the kitchen counter with the box between them, and he explains the deal: If she presses the button on the box, she will immediately be given a million dollars in cash (which he shows her, in a briefcase), BUT, someone she doesn’t know, somewhere in the world, will die. She can only discuss it with her husband and no one else. And they have 24 hours to make a decision. Regardless of their decision, after 24 hours the box will be taken from them, reprogrammed, and “given to someone else.”
The agonizing begins. Steward leaves, the husband comes home, all is explained, and then they sit there staring at the box for hours, debating in whispers so their son won’t hear. At first it’s like, of course they’re not going to press the button. But after talking and talking and talking about it, the debate sort of slips from “person dying vs. a million dollars” to “it’s a hoax vs. a million dollars.” So at first it was like, well, if we press it and someone dies, that’s terrible. But after awhile it’s like, well, if we press it and it’s a hoax, no one dies, but if it’s not a hoax, then we get a million dollars! The husband still is scoffing at the whole thing, because he took apart the box and saw that it was empty, and, being a man of science, now knows it can’t be connected to anything (however, beware the Arthur C. Clarke quote the film keeps returning to, about how any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic!) but Diaz was really affected by the guy’s mangled face, and she kind of thinks somehow it’s real. Where at first she was the one saying not to push it, now she’s thinking about her foot surgery, and her son, and ALL OF A SUDDEN she slaps her hand down on the button and pushes it. This was the point when I realized how totally taken in by the film I was, because I GASPED AND JUMPED BACK like I was watching The Descent or something! No! How could she push it?!
When she pushes it, the film cuts briefly to this other plot moment in which a NASA colleague has for some reason shot his wife in the chest and then run out of the house holding a briefcase, and when the cops get there they find the wife dead with no struggle, and the daughter locked in an upstairs bathroom with a padlock. Mystery.
There’s a knock on the door and Steward is there with the cash. He’s like, “here’s your cash, now I must take the box away.” Diaz looks like she’s going to be sick. She seems to immediately regret what she’s done. The husband is still just mystified. Steward gets the box and as he’s leaving, Diaz is like, “wait, you’re reprogramming the box and giving it to someone else?” and then Steward says, and it’s so intense! “Yes Mrs. Lewis, but, I can assure you, it will be given to SOMEONE YOU DON’T KNOW.”
And this is a real triumph of filmmaking, because somehow neither the old man, nor I, nor Cameron Diaz nor her husband, had realized until that very moment that WE ARE ALL SOMEONE SOMEONE DOESN’T KNOW.
This is where the allegory of the film started working into my heart and making me sick and sad. And it just gets worse from here.
So, a lot of creepy things start happening. Everyone’s acting weird and getting nosebleeds, and every time Diaz or husband start trying to talk to someone about the box they immediately get a phone call from Steward being like “I know you’re talking about it; I have many employees.” This word, ‘employees,’ keeps coming up. “You aren’t an employee; this library is for employees only.” He has many employees and they are always watching.
It becomes in the middle section kind of a weird classic sci-fi Body Snatchers thing where you slowly realize this guy Steward was struck by lightning and now his body is inhabited by a telepathic alien being whose civilization (its “employers,” if you will) are “testing humanity” with these boxes to see if humanity is worthy of living on. There are these weird maps with the middle east circled in black, and numbers flipping by on screens. We see tons and tons of boxes with buttons, being distributed all over the place. An employee asks him “but how can we save ourselves?” and Steward says, hilariously and wonderfully, “I don’t know, just don’t push the button,” which is what we the viewer have been yelling about this whole time. Meanwhile at a library the husband has this weird encounter with Steward’s wife, who tells him to choose between these three cubes of standing water, and behind one is eternal bliss and behind the other two are eternal damnation, and he goes into one and suddenly he appears in a cube of floating water above Cameron Diaz at home in their bedroom and falls out and there’s water everywhere and he can’t explain what happened. And Diaz herself had a crazy encounter with Steward where she tells him she loves him because of his mangled face and then he touches her and she passes out. Ok so this section of the film is hard for me to make sense of so lets move on.
THE CLIMAX OF THE FILM IS THUS: All this crazy stuff has happened, including at one point the husband runs into the NASA colleague who apparently shot his wife right when Diaz pushed the button, who tells him more about the alien civilization and how they forced him to choose between his wife and his daughter. He dies before he’s able to say more. He also has a “Human Exploitation Manual” that is apparently the alien civilizations’ testing method or something. It shows the “Water Coffin Triptych” we earlier saw the husband dealing with. NASA is somehow involved, as is the NSA. These are all just barely, barely hinted at. Just when I feared the movie was going to become a “heroic man and wife save the human race” sci-fi adventure, it went safely back to soul-destroying allegory, so don’t worry.
Finally Diaz and husband end up back home, after their son has been kidnapped right in front of them. Steward shows up. It’s the harsh light of morning; Diaz and husband look terrible, like they are longing for death. Steward explains the final choice: Right now, their son has been rendered completely blind and deaf. He will never see or hear again; his condition is irreversible. Their choice is: they can take the million dollars which they have earned, and live the rest of their lives normally, with their terribly handicapped child, OR, the husband can take this gun and shoot his wife in the heart, and at the moment her spirit leaves her body, the child’s vision and hearing will be restored to him. Diaz is like “please let me kill myself, don’t make my husband do it,” and Steward says no, this is the deal. He gets up to leave and as he’s leaving he says “I had great hopes for you both, and I want you to know I am genuinely sorry for all that has happened. I just wish you had not pressed the button.” Heavy! Diaz runs after him and is crying and says “can I be forgiven?” and he says “I don’t know.” Then he says, “your son is locked in the upstairs bathroom.”
So now we see the deal. We remember the other husband who shot the wife and the daughter locked in the upstairs bathroom. Also we remember that we were shown that other scene right after Diaz pressed the button on her box–that was the person who died when she pressed the button. Now the terrible allegorical cycle is becoming clear. They go into the living room, they’re crying, it’s awful, but then Diaz says, “when you mentioned the after life, HE SMILED,” and then she clings to that as evidence that there is an afterlife, thus giving her the courage to die for her son. The husband is like “ok there is an afterlife, so I’ll see you soon ok???” everybody sobbing. He shoots her–Then it cuts to a totally new couple, sitting in a very similar living room, with a box. And the wife says, “I’m gonna push it,” and she pushes it, and then back to Diaz dying slowly and the husband crying.
That’s the end–the son wakes up and he can see and hear, the dad gets taken away, and that’s it.
It’s such a devastating film. Obviously it’s an allegory–I like to think that really almost no one would actually push the button, given the circumstances. But that’s kind of the point of the film, I think. We are all pushing the button, every day.
The people given the button to push, in the film, were all middle class white people. The problems they felt were worth an unknown person dying to solve were so mundane. Oh, foot surgery because you have a limp? Fancy prep school for your son as opposed to public school? You can’t be an astronaut and are going to have to be a rocket scientist instead? And these problems are SO HUGE that it is worth someone else dying. And you see them in the moment of button pushing–they’re not thinking of their neighbors or how they would feel if their child died or something. They’re thinking of someone wholly Other. And it’s only by thus Othering that it becomes possible to push the button. Because anyone you can see and feel as a human becomes someone you can’t imagine killing. It would be like killing yourself. And this is the terrible paradox by which the modern world functions. None of us would kill a single person unless under the most outrageous circumstances, yet by our actions and our choices, we allow/enable millions of people to be killed. We kill with the passive voice. George Bush would never kill a person–he would be upset and screaming just like anybody if someone got blown up in the street right in front of him–but when the people dying are not really people, it becomes possible to slaughter them by the tens of thousands. And when the dying is separated by even the thinnest amount of distance–literal, cultural, whatever–it becomes possible for the rest of us to NOT CARE THAT MUCH. Notice how many millions of people have died in American bombings of other countries, and we’re bummed, but life goes on, but when two thousand Americans die in the World Trade Center attacks, our country shuts down, our lives are altered forever, random people in Iowa and Oregon are sobbing uncontrollably. Because those people aren’t our Others, they are Us. And imagine if we were able to feel that way for THE WHOLE WORLD. War would be impossible.
The terrible moral of the film–one of them, anyway–is basically “We Are All Someone’s Other.”
But the other lesson I took from the film that I am maybe misreading is that there are other kinds of choices than just push the button/don’t push the button. Because in the film, the killing of Cameron Diaz was contingent on the other unknown couple pushing their button, BUT ALSO it felt like their pushing of the button was somehow contingent on Diaz’s decision to die. The way that scene was shot made it feel like if Diaz and husband had decided NOT to go that route, that other couple would not have pushed the button, and thus that particular cycle would have been stopped. The point of the film is STOP PUSHING THE BUTTON. That’s the only thing Steward/alien ever said. Just don’t push the button. At one point he said this, in his explanation to that employee. If only enough of you would choose not to push the button.
So my thought was: maybe the ultimate choice Diaz and husband made was also the wrong choice. Because ultimately wasn’t it a selfish decision–as selfish, in its way, as pushing the button in the first place? When encouraging her husband to shoot her, Diaz said “I can’t see him like that,” meaning, she can’t bear to see her son blind and deaf BECAUSE OF A DECISION SHE MADE. Her guilt and her shame were really horrible to see and to contemplate. By this moment in the film she has recognized all the implications of having pushed the button, and she’s so ashamed of herself on a cosmic level that her death seems like the only solution. Of course we would all rather die given that scenario. I would be glad to die in that scenario. But that is kind of the point–we would want and be glad to die. Yes, our dying would restore our child’s senses to him, but it would also deprive him of both his parents and leave him with this inexplicable, insurmountable childhood tragedy that he would never even begin to comprehend. Is this less damaging than being blind and deaf? Is this the choice HE would make, were it his to choose? And isn’t it easy, to just die and then your child is perfect again…instead of climbing those stairs and taking him in your arms and starting the arduous process of teaching him to read braille or whatever. I also felt a hint of accusation in the film about this choice because, like, oh, so you only want your kid if he’s perfect? A damaged kid is unacceptable?
I’m not sure if this was the film’s intention but I like this reading as well. Both choices are about the easy way vs. the hard way, and even though the second choice seems like it’s about self-sacrifice, I wonder…is self sacrifice always the best option? Maybe facing up and engaging with the shame and the horror is actually the correct choice, the choice that can actually effect change in the greater world rather than just in your own sphere. I’m not sure. And anyway, this “easy vs. hard” is the choice that all people in affluent countries make with nearly every breath we take. It’s woven into the very fabric of our lives. Everything we own, everything we eat, everything we love, it’s all woven together inextricably with the suffering of others. We can opt out of a lot of it, but never all of it, unless we literally do sell all our belongings and go live in a van down by the river. And anyway, where did the steel the van is made of come from?
It’s certainly a dark vision, but I don’t think the point is just to throw up your hands and say “well fuck it.” I’m not sure what the point is, but I appreciated that this film was an exploration of truths rather than of solutions. How facile would it have been if it had ended with everyone not pressing the button and then holding hands and waving goodbye to the aliens as the sun rises and unicorns run through the meadow or whatever (i.e. the puerile ending tacked onto the film version of another Richard Mattheson short story, “I Am Legend”). The film feels like a grim facing of reality and nothing more. How VAST is the web that holds us all together. You can think you aren’t a player in geo politics but you are. Your money is in a bank that invests in Halliburton. Your clothes were made by little kids in sweatshops. Your food came from a factory farm. Maybe the hemp in your hand-made hemp wallet was grown by slave labor in some country you’ve never heard of. Maybe the rubber on the tires of the bicycle you built yourself to subvert Big Oil and Big Car is made in a country that doesn’t have health regulations on its factories and all the workers at the rubber factory die at age 20 of lung cancer. etc. etc. etc. But in the film, we are all seen as in thrall to forces beyond our control. Because it’s also condescending and paternalistic–and playing into the Othering scam–to be like “oh, I’m rich, my important actions affect the lives of the sad little poor people.” The film is also about how we ALL lose our humanity in the global capitalist machine (the “Human Exploitation” machine). Cameron Diaz lost her foot because somebody forgot all about her as she sat in a machine she didn’t understand. The husband’s dream of going into space was destroyed because some faceless bureaucrat decided he hadn’t passed some test. We all lose control; we all give up control; we are all oppressed by capitalist technological progress, by the roles we are born into and can’t escape, by machines, by MONEY.
But then I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do about it. Just “not pushing the button” in the film doesn’t make other people stop pushing the button. And that’s another layer to the film’s allegory, because it’s also about the helplessness of the one. I’m just one person, what can I do? I’m just one person, a million dollars isn’t that much money, I’m just going to push the button. I’m just one person, surely me switching from car to bicycle isn’t going to make any difference to the world whatsoever, so I’ll just keep driving my car. Like that onion headline: “‘What harm can one plastic bottle do’ wonder 18 million people.” We all know that saving the earth, stopping the war, etc., will take massive change at the personal level–that’s what everyone says, scientists and all, that it’s not going to be some wimpy new legislation or some tax on some company that’s going to save us, that it has to be massive behavioral change at every level of ALL OF OUR LIVES. And yet, in the face of those words (“everybody,” “all of us”) individual action seems impossible, futile, meaningless. I can’t even convince my closest friends to watch a Monty Python movie, how am I supposed to engage with ALL AMERICANS and get them to immediately stop driving their cars? It ain’t gonna happen.
Ultimately the whole button dilemma is unsolvable, except insofar that were it not an allegory–were it a real story–it would be ludicrous, because no one would push the button. And that’s the saddest thing of all, really. If we KNEW that our action was killing someone else, directly and immediately, we wouldn’t do that action. I really believe that of most people. If it was like, “if you take a bite of that Big Mac someone in the world will die,” no one would take the bite. But, tragically, our actions and choices are NOT linked so directly to the death of human beings–or at least, we can’t feel that they are. The film makes you almost wish you DID have a button to not-push. You wish it were that easy. You wish it were as easy as killing yourself so that someone else may live. But the rub is that we are rarely faced with such a choice, AND ARE RARELY BESTOWED WITH SUCH A POWER.
Anyway I have to go see the new Twilight movie now. Which is also an allegory. For The Boner That Must Not Speak Its Name.