The shameful truth about The Box and me is that I kind of wanted to hate it. Even without yet having seen his previous film, the infamous Southland Tales, I've come to the decision that I really dislike Richard Kelly. He's said a lot of obnoxious things in interviews, about his "neo-Marxist" political views and his views on writing, and his response to the critical shellacking he received following Southland Tales essentially amounted to "If you don't like my movie, then you're old." So the fact that I did end up admiring the film, to a point, I guess means that I'm positively busting with integrity, but I'm not even going to mention that, as it would be crass.
Based on Richard Matheson's famous short story "Button, Button", The Box tells the tale of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), and the offer made to them by Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Steward gives the couple a box, inside of which is a red button, enclosed in glass. If the button is pushed in the next twenty-four hours, someone who the Lewises don't know will die, and they, the Lewises, will be given one million dollars. If they choose not to push the button, Steward will retrieve the button, and go on his way. Their dire financial situation having been established, Diaz pushes the button about a half hour in, and this, by the way, signals the end of Kelly's Matheson adaptation, and the hour and half that follows is pure Kelly.
For better or for worse. The better is that there is a great deal of strangeness that Kelly squeezes out of Matheson's premise, and his own extrapolation of it: mysterious kids, random nosebleeds, a city-wide rise in domestic violence, NASA, Mars, lightning...what do any of these things have to do with each other? The first hour of the films at times feels like the stage is being set for something truly bizarre and mysterious, and the second half pays it off, or tries to, although the core pay-off -- the meaning behind it all -- has been cribbed from any number of earlier SF films (most of which cribbed it from one very famous movie, the title of which shouldn't be revealed as it would constitute a spoiler), and The Box's strangeness goes from intriguing to a trifle desperate. When Kelly wrote the section of the film that ends with Marsden suspended above his wife, who is at home in bed, in a pool of floating water, which then comes splashing down, I imagine he must have thought: "What the fuck am I doing?" And then he looked at the calendar, and then the clock, and thought: "It'll work. It'll work. It'll work. It'll work." Over and over again until he nearly believed it himself.
The second half, in general, is just loony, not to mention clumsy. In fact, clumsiness doesn't always cut it. At one point, James Marsden leaves a party due to illness, and as he steps outside another character, played by Ryan Woodle, approaches him with a gun, and tells him to get into a car, which Marsden does. After Woodle's character has revealed his intentions, Kelly cuts to a scene of another character being kidnapped. Then he cuts back to Marsden and Woodle, and Woodle says "They just kidnapped [character we just saw being kidnapped]." Well, how the Christ does he know that? Shouldn't Woodle have approached Marsden after we saw that other person get kidnapped, so that we could have inferred that Woodle either witnessed or was informed of the kidnapping before he talked to Marsden? As it plays now, Woodle and Marsden were already on the road by that time, so he couldn't have known this. Yes, we will learn that Woodle's character would have had a very good reason to suspect that such a thing would happen, but that's not what he says. He says, essentially, "Hey, they just kidnapped so-and-so." Like, "I just heard it on the radio that..." or "I was just watching the dailies earlier, and..." or "Richard Kelly wanted me to tell you..."
The Box is many things. It's part of a superb SF/horror film. It's also a paranoid thriller, as well as a surreal, existentialist nightmare. And it's also the kind of movie that uses an image of the World Trade Center, because that's the kind neck-breaking strain boneheads like Kelly put themselves through in their shallow bid to claim significance for their work. But I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel it was mostly those first three things. What The Box thinks it's up to, I have no clue, but when it's not being either very good or very bad, it's pleasantly baffling. And possibly, I've become too forgiving.
Gentlemen Broncos, meanwhile, was absolutely rent asunder by critics last year, and this disappointed me because, despite my aggressive indifference towards Hess's Napoleon Dynamite, the premise of this new film struck me as something I wished I'd thought of: a young man who aspires to write science fiction professionally, attends a writers' workshop/getaway, at which one of the instructors will be a successful SF author who is our young hero's idol. That idol will read what our hero has submitted, and then plagiarize it.
The capacity for a merciless skewering of SF, both professional and amateur, as well as fandom, in this premise is incalculable. But then the reviews started coming out, as well as clips from the film itself, and everyone who'd seen the film seemed to agree -- and I was beginning to see their point -- that the SF that was described in this film, and the SF film within the film, was so far removed from any reality, bore so little resemblence to the genre as we know it, from any era or any nationality, that there was no possibility for satiric sting, no potential for self-recognition for us SF fans looking to laugh at ourselves, or each other, or to get all the inside jokes we felt sure Hess would lay throughout his movie, because, of course, there were no inside jokes. Gentlemen Broncos existed entirely in the world of Hess's brain, so any inside jokes would be appreciated only by him.
So then I watched the film, and I realized that what everyone was bitching about was that Gentlemen Broncos was not the film they imagined it would be when they read the plot synopsis (I know this, because I imagined the same movie). The fact that Hess had no interest in satirizing, or even somewhat aproximating, actual science fiction, as we experience it in the real world (there's an irony there, I think) doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody. Or if it did, they didn't care, because they knew the movie they wanted to see, and this wasn't it.
Each of Jared Hess's films have been pitched at the same level of grotesque deadpan. The man is not a realist. I don't know if this was lost on the many fans of Napoleon Dynamite, but it's a style that has been falling out of favor with those fans ever since. The point is, none of his characters are meant to be believed, in the sense that we might expect to meet some version of them in our daily lives. But they are meant to be believed in the kind of world that might contain them all. Presumably, that world would also feature forms of entertainment; possibly, this would include some version of science fiction. If so, then the science fiction found in a world population by Napoleon Dynamite, Uncle Rico, Don Carlos, and Dr. Reginald Chevalier is going to look like this:
You'll notice I haven't spent any time trying to convince anyone that Gentlemen Broncos is a good (not great -- nobody ever said "great") and funny movie. I can't do that, so I won't even try; the film is too off for me to muster that kind of argument. All I'm saying is, if you watch it, let it be the movie it is, and don't worry about the movie you thought it was going to be.
Of course, if you don't think Jermaine Clement as Dr. Chevalier gives one of the great comic performences of the last several years, then I have nothing to say to you.