A tale of altruism and aliens that leads humanity towards a penultimate fate contained in a small wooden box. Writer/director Richard Kelly’s third film is another concoction of the preternatural and prosaic, loosely based upon Richard Matheson’s story BUTTON, BUTTON and embedded with a healthy dose of Satre and Philip; K. Dick. Unfortunately, this marriage of the X-FILES and THAT 70’s SHOW leads to an intellectual divorce.
Arthur and Norma Lewis are typical suburbanites living the late 70’s American Dream of crushing debt and silent frustrations, slaves to the green god of capitalism. One day, a mysterious man appears with an innocuous box and a promise of one million dollars. But first they must press the button with the knowledge that another human being unknown to them will surely die. Can they live with the guilt?
Richard Kelly takes Matheson’s miniscule tale of marital strife and transforms it into a magical mystery tour de farce, losing sight of interesting characters and compounding the fiction with needless prattle. Unlike the masterful DONNIE DARKO, here Kelly feels the need to explain every detail, to crosscut from a strange circumstance to blatant exposition, thus draining the narrative of all ambiguity. James Mardsen is woefully pathetic in his role as the dejected patriarch, projecting the emotional depth of a Romero zombie. Cameron Diaz isn’t much better, seeming to channel the overwrought spirit of Tammy Faye Baker with pouting lips and swollen eyes. Kelly conjures forth the Bicentennial with exceptional attention to period detail, even down to the metal lunchboxes. The cinematography utilizes a subtle palette and soft image, its sometimes beautiful compositions imbue the film with a flair of nostalgia.
Kelly’s intent is to create a humanistic test of altruism in order to judge the human race worthy of survival. Of course, the original sin of pushing the button (a double entendre concerning nuclear war) comes through the woman. But I believe the test itself is flawed since it’s effects are too distanced: the result should be in witnessing the death of someone, or the knowledge of the identity of the person they killed. In other words, there must be an immediate consequence. The story is interesting but soon becomes mired in explanation and exposition, smothering audience imagination. The ending is a monotonous melodrama that aborts reason.
One thing is now apparent: Hell is indeed another Kelly film. Final Grade: (D)