Okay, Richard Kelly reappears with his third film, after the acclaimed Donnie Darko and the derided Southland Tales. And it seems he’s continuing his interest in everyday lives coming into serious conflict with the space-time continuum and all sorts of quantum physics. Yep, it’s just another story in the classic man-vs-quantum-physics model. I really liked Southland Tales, because although it may have been a mess it was at least a really interesting, entertaining one. This one is also really interesting for quite a while, but ultimately doesn’t fare so well. And, now that Kelly is proving to be a little too out-of-this-world for coherent filmmaking on this plane of existence, I’d like to point out that I called Donnie Darko as a piece of total claptrap way back when.
This movie opens with a military teletype-thing saying that this guy Arlington Steward has escaped the burn unit and taken some device with him. It’s Virginia, 1976, as Cameron Diaz as Norma and James Marsden as her husband Arthur are woken at 5:45am by the doorbell. Someone has left a plain brown box on their doorstep, with a note saying he’ll return at 5pm to discuss it. Inside is a wooden box with a big red button under a glass dome. Then the two of them go about their workdays, and we get a bunch of character-setting information. She’s a teacher who is having her kids read Sartre’s No Exit. Norma pronounces him “Sart.” This hyper-creepy boy in class asks Norma why she walks with a limp and asks to see her foot, and she has so little control over her classroom she just whips off her shoe and shows them: she has no toes except for her little one. This turns out to have nothing to do with anything—or, it probably all ties in on the astral plane if you’ve read the 317-page prologue comic book and decoded the associated website and read the complete works of Sarte and completed the crucial word find that will reveal all of the cutting-edge philosophy going on here. But if you’re just planning to watch the film and not devote your life to discerning its hidden meaning, it comes to nothing.
Meanwhile, Arthur works at NASA and is hoping to be sent into space. He designed this camera that is currently on Mars looking for water, because this will prove extraterrestrial life. He’s also working on a custom prosthesis so Norma will be able to walk without a limp and start jogging again. Nothing says love like a custom prosthesis. It’s right before Christmas time, by the way. We also learn that it’s the premiere of the show “What’s Happening!” which I can only conclude is included here as a joke, since that is what most viewers will be asking in this film’s last half hour.
Anyway, at 5pm Arlington Steward [whose name MAY be pregnant with meaning] shows up and chats with Norma. He is played by Frank Langella in a dark suit and bowler hat, with a nasty-ass burn on the side of his face and neck that leaves a hole so you can see his teeth. How does this guy enjoy a hot beverage without having it drip out the side? I don’t think he does—he’s a movie construction who needs no food or water. So he has a deal to make Norma: If you press the button, someone you don’t know will die, and you’ll get a million dollars. We’ve earlier heard that she and Arthur are “living paycheck to paycheck.” Norma is all disturbed, and has 24 hours to think about it. She can ask no questions and not tell anyone but her husband. They also have to keep it from their young son, Walter.
We find out the rather extraneous information that Norma lost her toes when the doctor left her alone under an X-ray machine, and they had to be amputated, and she had to get a cast that held her in an awkward position for a month. What does this have to do with? Nothing really, but it’s kind of interesting. Then we find that Arthur failed his psychological exam and won’t be able to go into space. So we have an unhappy couple, and to cheer themselves up they go see the local theater troupe’s production of “No Exit.” Yeah—no Bye-Bye Birdie THIS year! They sure do have some progressive local theater in Virginia. Then we cut to some guy we don’t know who also works at NASA as he gets a call saying his daughter has been kidnapped. Then we see that he is being photographed. Then Norma and Arthur discuss what to do, and Arthur opens the unit and discovers that there’s no mechanism inside—it is nothing but the button. They discuss what to do, discuss their money problems, discuss their moral problems, and finally come to a decision. They decide to—
SPOILERS > > >
Press the button! It stays down for a long moment before slowly raising itself again, which was a devilishly good touch. Then suddenly we see the police report that a woman—who we’ve never seen before—has been shot, and a man ran out of the house. Upstairs the police find a young girl locked in the bathroom. They soon find out that the guy who ran works for NASA! And we see that although it’s supposedly 1976, very few of the cops have mustaches. That’s revisionist history! Meanwhile, Steward shows up and delivers the money and takes back the box for reprogramming. They ask if he’ll give it to someone else and he ominously says yes, but be assured, it’ll be someone they don’t know.
Now the wheels of this train start to wobble. Arthur and Norma go to a rehearsal dinner, where the creepy student from Norma’s class makes menacing faces and a peace sign at Arthur, who then beats the kid up, as the kid gets a bloody nose. Increasing numbers of people will start to get sudden bloody noses as the film goes on. Then they play a secret santa game and Arthur takes the plain brown box, which contains a blurry B&W photo of Steward. Then he asks a cop friend to look into Steward, and immediately Norma gets a call saying her husband has told someone else, when they said they wouldn’t. Then there’s a shadowy figure outside flashing signals at someone inside! Then Norma and Arthur have “No Exit” scrawled on the windshield of their car! Meanwhile, their babysitter at home seems to be the only babysitter alive not at all bothered by a looming figure standing just outside the windows, looking in, and takes an inordinate interest in Arthur’s Mars models and astronaut ephemera in the basement.
By now, six people in my audience had walked out.
When Arthur drives the babysitter home, she develops a sudden nosebleed, starts telling him to look into the light and into the mirror [well WHICH is it?], and wants to be taken to a cheap motel by the freeway, where the pool is lined in tin foil and there’s a bunch of weirdoes standing around. Then Norma is at the grocery store when a woman with a nosebleed shows up, thrusts a note into her hand and tells her to “Trust no one—not even your husband!” I’m glad she said it and not me, because this was really beginning to seem like an X-Files episode. Especially when we get a shot of Steward standing in a secret underground bunker with CGI water flowing up one wall and down the other. Then Arthur and Norma end up at the library at the same time, although without knowing it, wherein she finds out that Steward was struck by lightning, hence the crater face, and Arthur is being menaced by Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type mobs, who corral him into this place where he meets this woman, Steward’s wife. She takes him into a room where he has to choose door number one, two or three, with one leading to paradise and the other two to eternal damnation. They appear as columns of CGI water. He makes the right choice and ends up in his column of water hovering above Norma, who is lying in bed. All the water falls and cascades down the stairs—that’s going to be some water damage! There goes their million dollars, right there. At this point I have written in my notes: “This movie is OFF ITS ROCKER!”
Now, at the climax, is when the movie really starts to fly apart. Steward was struck by lightning, and says “Now I am in communication with those who control the lightning.” Well why don’t you invite them by for dinner? Someone also asks him how long “the experiment” will go on, and he says “As long as people keep pushing the button.”
Then, suddenly Norma and Walter’s kid is abducted! This guy shows up with a gun and tells Arthur “If you want to save yourself, get in the car right now.” This is the guy who got the call that HIS daughter was abducted earlier, and who shot his wife. He says he knowingly shot his wife in order to save his daughter. Just when you’re thinking this movie is a little bit like Knowing, there’s a sudden truck crash, just like in Knowing! Arthur is re-abducted and taken to some airplane hanger, and surprise, Norma is there, too. Then they’re piled into a car to go home. Lot of pointless driving around today! I hope they have a good mix tape. Before they get in the car, this guy barks to Arthur “Whatever happens from now on will have greater implications than you can possibly fathom!” Well thanks. Geez, low pressure, huh? They are driven home, where they find Steward waiting for them.
Time for another moral showcase showdown! Their son is currently, inexplicably, blind and deaf. They can walk away with all they’ve won, and have a deaf and blind son, or Arthur can kill Norma and get his son back, good as new. This all seems like an additional stipulation not specified in the original contract, but by now a gaggle of laser-wielding sniper geese could invade and it would make about as much sense as anything else. Norma asks “Can’t I be forgiven?” then tells Arthur that she realizes now that heaven is NOT a place on Earth, and where they are now is purgatory, so he should kill her, have some father-son time, and she’ll catch up with him in the afterlife. Arthur says no! No! NO! Then “okay,” and kills her. At this moment, we cut to another couple, that we have never seen until this point, and she’s pushing the button, making Norma the person she doesn’t know that died. Arthur’s son suddenly gets his sight and hearing back, but dad is dragged off to jail. Them’s the breaks! But he does get a set of Ginsu knives and a year’s worth of free desserts at Elias Brothers’ Big Boy, just for playing. In the bathroom immediately following the movie, one guy said to another “That shit just made no sense AT ALL.”
Before we leave the spoilers, here, as near as I can tell, is what’s going on: Aliens, or Gods, or aliens that function as Gods, are doing some prep work for the apocalypse, and the button is a moral test to sort out the good from the bad, who will get into heaven or not. Steward is the executor of these tests and in charge of the whole gateway between the spectral planes. Seems like a lot of additional complications, rules and regulations and bylaws and amendments, just for that, but whatever.
< < < SPOILERS END
This movie is yet another lesson that all sorts of wacky mysteries can be involving—IF they add up to something at the end. I was enjoying the menacing moral test of the first 30 minutes, intrigued by all the crazy, CRAZY hints of vast conspiracy and otherworldly drama for the middle hour, eager to see what it all adds up to, but then, in the last 30 minutes, when it becomes apparent that it’s all going to add up to something extremely loose and what little part is comprehensible is going to be kind of dumb, it was a big letdown. Southland Tales also made very little sense [although a tad more than this] but it was really fun and funny all the way through, so it got by on that.
Nevertheless, I was cutting writer-director Kelly a lot of slack that he was trying to wrangle in a complex story from the Ricahrd Matheson source. Then I read the Matheson short story—it is basically ten pages, and includes ONLY the premise about the box and the deal—push it and someone will die—and that is IT. EVERYTHING else, all of the NASA stuff and those who control the lightning and moving between astral planes and rules and regulations and showcase showprize smackdowns are the inventions of Kelly. And that’s when I started thinking that this guy is the smart nerd who spent his formative years in a defensive cocoon of self-congratulation that he was reading Sarte while everyone else was reading V.C. Andrews, and enough people were overwhelmed by his debut they assumed that it must be brilliantly beyond them instead of just a bunch of extremely urgent hot air. At this point the question is how much longer anyone will finance his movies, or if he’ll be able to do anything different. On the Wikipedia page for this film, Kelly is quoted on his intentions for this film: "My hope is to make a film that is incredibly suspenseful and broadly commercial, while still retaining my artistic sensibility." This made me think “Oh dear, these narcissistic youngsters of today,” because it seems that Kelly needs to worry a lot less about expressing HIS artistic sensibility and concentrate on mastering the basic ability to write a coherent story.
Langella is, as always, pitch-perfect. Marsden is just fine, but Cameron Diaz is really quite good, and delivers quite a solid performance—quite a lot of progress for someone who started as a former model. Let’s hope she can continue to make the transition from “babe” roles to serious work. Anyway, this movie won’t kill you and is quite entertaining for a good while—I guess it all depends on how much time you have to kill.
Depends on your tolerance for intriguing mysteries that add up to almost nothing.