(PG-13 for some violence, disturbing images, adult thematic elements): In 1944, Jean Paul Sartre published his second play, "No Exit," about a man & two women who find themselves trapped together in a room for all eternity. As the play progresses they discover that they are dead & in hell, carefully selected to face one another in eternal anguish. At the end it suggests that their fate has been generated by personal choices while alive; we get the fatalistic curtain line from the man: "Well, let's get on with it."
"The Box" makes good use of sidelong references to the play. It was written & directed by Richard Kelly (who in 2001 did moderately well with the psychic mystery "Donnie Darko"). Kelly adapted this nearly 2-hour film version from a short story, "Button, Button," by regular "Twilight Zone" contributor Richard Matheson - perfect for the series with the satisfying twist at the end.
The time for "The Box" is 1976 (Why set in the past? No discernable explanation.) A mid-class couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) with a young son (James Rebhorn) are delivered unexpected economic blows. Perhaps by coincidence, a black box appears on their doorstep, topped with a large red button. They are told by a badly disfigured man (Frank Langella at his most cryptic) that they would receive a million dollars as soon as they press the button. The price? Someone they won't know, somewhere, will die because of it.
One after another, choices are given to them as they fall ever deeper into the quandary. They wander through mysterious places, make choices, watch friends & strangers get nosebleeds, are witness to other things paranormal, asks questions of us, like what's the purpose of a many doored motel with miserable, Felliniesque people living inside? And more. Near the climax most of the questions are answered, with a "Twilight Zone" conclusion.
The only difference is that Kelly has expanded his material to over an hour & a half in every way possible, down to those looooooong dialog pauses. He even throws in irrelevant situations - the wife obeying a sadistic student when he insists in class that she take off her boot & stocking to reveal a misshapened foot or an episode at a pre-nuptial dinner party during which half a dozen other unexplained incidents occur.
Some questions are answered with cryptic statements, like, "He's testing you." Who is? From outer space? Heaven? We never find out, but much time is wasted while director Kelly continues to turn the screw, creating almost unbearable tension.
The entire film is unpleasant to bear, but well made in the finest Hollywood studio style. Editor Sam Baur neatly, suspensefully ties together the seemingly disparate incidents from various parts of the city while the music score by Win Butler, Regine Chassagne & Owen Pallett heightens the tension without obvious intrusion. Hard to forget. (Grade: B-)