Literary Ramblings: Inside The Walls Of Existentialism: A Review Of Richard Kelly’s The Box


Yes, Cameron Diaz has a horribly fake accent, and there are allusions to ambiguous alien powers and plots regarding the future of the human race that seem to serve no purpose (other than to perhaps encourage the audience to draws parallels between these ambiguous beings and the Judaeo-Christian God who wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah and brought a great flood to wipe-out the entire known world). But these minors flaws aside, Richard Kelly’s new film, The Box, is both an entertaining and challenging film that creates perpetual and effective suspense while also presenting interesting presentations of existentialist themes.
James Marsden provides a stable and compelling performance as Arthur Lewis, while Frank Langella supplies the audience with a character that is at once eerie and unsettling while also compassionate, endearing and mystifying as Arlington Steward. And though Diaz throws a bit of a wrench into the ensemble as Norma Lewis with a seemingly unnecessary southern accent that provides no apparent value or pragmatic purpose to the film, she holds up in scenes where the film seems to need her most.
There are unexplored mysteries in the film, dealing specifically with the ambiguous beings, so when one of the “employees” of the ambiguous beings walks past the Lewis’s baby sitter, the suspense built in the scene later seems unnecessary and purposeless when it is later revealed that the babysitter herself is an “employee”. In hindsight there are several scenes that seem to work in the same way, but while watching the scenes in the moment these scenes, with the assistance of Hitchcockian scoring that serves to effectively build mood, create and sustain a heightened sense of suspense that should serve to test the nerves of most audience members.
Where the film is most successful though is in its ability to combine a commercially entertaining suspense/thriller with challenging and engaging post modern themes dealing with existentialism through the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, which they seem to be able to do without making seem like the audience is being bludgeoned with the source material. Sartre himself felt that novels and plays were more effective modes of writing than were essays when it came to communicating themes and ideas, and Kelly seems to be very much aware of this in his writing, choosing to delve into the content of Sartre’s plays as opposed to essays on existentialism. Sartre’s concepts of hell, for example, are prevalent in his play Nuis-clos (often translated as “No Exit” in English) where he defines hell as a place where people are exposed to others for who they really are. It is at this point of the film where Diaz’s character is challenged to expose herself, illustrating Sartre’s belief that themes can often be more effectively articulated through a narrative such as a play or novel, rather than through pragmatic prose.

Jean Paul Sartre: Master of existentialism.

Jean Paul Sartre: Master of existentialism.

Other existentialist themes are presented through the film’s narrative. Existentialists, for example, believe that we are offered certain freedoms when choices are presented to us, but that we only employ our freedom when we consider our own personal ethics and how they might be applied to the choice. When we don’t consider how our choice might define our morals, we are refusing our freedom and applying to chance. Such is the case with Arthur and Norma Lewis when they are given the choice to push the button on the box that Sterard delivers to them. The pushing of the button, the Lewis’s are told, will result in the death of one person they do not know while also delivering one million dollars to their family, and though the couple do begin to consider how their personal ethics come into play with this decision, they instead question the nature of the device, challenging its legitimacy, as well as the authority of Steward, eventually allowing their decision to be influenced by the doubtfulness of their situation’s authenticity, rather than their own personal morals, and foregoing their freedom in the matter by making a choice without truly consulting their morals. Later in the film though another choice is presented to them at which time both are sure to fully engage their own personal ethics to reach a decision. The changing attitudes of the couple also speaks to another existential principle in that though our past serves to define us to a degree, we are not defined only by our past and are not tied to it, meaning we are free to change the course of our lives. Though the couple did not invoke their freedom when they were first presented with a choice, that pattern of behaviour would not lock them into that behaviour pattern in the future. There is also the idea of the “absurd”, which in existentialism speaks to moments in which events outside of a person’s control appear randomly in one’s life to change who they are, like when Norma loses the toes on her right foot, or is told that the school where she teaches will no longer offer the children of their faculty free tuition. Likewise the Langella character also undergoes a moment of the “absurd” the serves to redefine him. Such themes are woven throughout the film, for the most part seamlessly, and serve to add a depth to what would have otherwise been an effective but conventional suspense film.


While Diaz’s accent may cause some in the audience to cringe, the cast on the whole is held together by Marsden and Langella and other supporting actors like James Rebhorn and Gillian Jacobs. The scoring is effective in its ability to build and maintain the suspense throughout the film, and while certain aspects of the plot seem unnecessarily extravagances (why, for example, is the film set in 1976 when it could have easily taken place in a contemporary setting?), it remains effective in articulating challenging existential themes while also providing an entertaining suspense thriller to general audiences. The Box may not be as extravagant as Kelly’s last effort, Southland Tales, or as appealing to younger audiences as Donnie Darko, but the film illustrates how Kelly is capable of making a film that is broadly entertaining and still capable of stimulating the mind.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. this blog fucking rules sorry had to say it

  2. Rambler Rambler says:

    Thank you for your kind words.

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