Compared to its madcap predecessors — the psychotic Holden Caulfield update Donnie Darko and the delirious welcome-to-the-21st-century extravaganza Southland Tales — the new Richard Kelly movie is basically a sock of coal for Christmas. A mysterious stranger offers a nice American couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) an unusual deal: They stand to make a million dollars if they'll just push a button on a gizmo that will, they are told, instantly kill a total stranger somewhere in the world. Hugely expanded from Richard Matheson's 1971 cautionary short story, "Button, Button," Kelly's supernatural thriller is hardly irrelevant in its premise. The notion of remote-control murder is newly topical in the days of roadside bombs and drone warfare. The Box doesn't lack for ideas—the maraca bean rattle of extraterrestrial lightning-zap CIA zombie nosebleed conspiracy reaches a dull roar by the time it ends—and neither is the director's first commercial project an impersonal piece of work. The problem is that here, unlike in Donnie Darko, Kelly never manages to invest crank theories and baroque genre trappings with anything deeper than longstanding obsession or autobiographical reference. Considering his movie's outlandish paranormal subject matter, Kelly's booga-booga is actually pretty subdued. The best thing about The Box is that its title keeps suggesting new self-reflexive metaphors—like the tightly wound filmmaker's dogged attempt to think outside it.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.