On the Capitalist Realism of ‘The Box’

The Box 2009 Movie - Film Essay

In Richard Kelly’s The Box, set in 1976, Arthur and Norma Lewis should have “enough.” Their romance is still alive, they’re healthy and both individuals seem to find joy in their work, as a NASA engineer and private school teacher, respectively. And yet there is a massive void, an emptiness. A Hitchcockian-score fills the atmosphere of the Lewis’ upper middle class Virginia suburb. Any semblances of 60s-era space-race optimism has vanished; the humans have left Earth, and those who are stuck are still being tested. 

An unsung autobiographical auteur, Kelly pulls from the deepest of heart strings for his third and possibly final feature. Whereas Donnie Darko beckons back not to nostalgia but through nostalgia as a wistfully melancholic science fiction film, and Southland Tales embodies a manic, coke-fueled prophetic end times celebration, The Box is what’s left. The Box is what’s here and now. 

Kelly’s take on Richard Matheson’s original short story begins faithful enough: Arthur and Norma are in relatively dire financial straits when they’re presented with a box and an offer. As explained by an enigmatic man-in-black named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella): push the bright red button in the box, kill someone you’ve never met before and receive one million dollars. The Lewis’ both pitifully and emotionally give in, thus damaging everything they’ve held dear. 

Norma, played with multitudes by Cameron Diaz, suffers daily. An accident in her formative years has left her with a disability: her right foot (at least what’s left of it) is plagued by constant phantom pain. In a staggering scene, Norma is teased and ostracized by her classroom. With her perceived authority as a teacher now crumbled by classroom cruelty, she mercifully makes the choice to be vulnerable. In lieu of chastising the class for their ostracization of her, she instead tells them what happened: her brother accidentally dropped a dumbbell on her foot, and her doctor’s X-ray negligence made the damage worse.

In this exchange, Kelly doesn’t show libertarian individualism, but rather hope for collective empathy. There is transcendent love in this characterization, too, as Kelly has acknowledged the autobiographical nature of the Lewis characters (his father works within NASA). 

Arthur bleeds empathy. Portrayed as a tinkerer first and a NASA engineer second, his quiet and compassionate love for Norma is made physical through a homemade foot prosthetic, designed to ease her pain. Arthur’s presentation of this device, shown as intimate and sensual, expresses not only Arthur’s sincerity, but that of Kelly as well. The Lewis’ are good people, but their tragedy plays out against the fading light of space-race optimism. 

The Box Movie Film

A key component of capitalist realism is an obliteration of optimism, characterizing anything beyond the oligarch present as absurd. Should the Lewis family not hope for a better life? Will a million dollars bring that better life? The Box provides no answers for these questions, only showing a reflection of a world where such questions are constantly being asked. Now one million dollars richer, the Lewis’ are forced to bear witness to Steward’s nightmare world of dark hallways, fatal decisions and invisible forces ruling everything around them; they lifted the veil and forfeited everything capitalism couldn’t take from them.

Like most Kelly films, sinister time scopes play a role in The Box. If the Lewis’ choose to kill someone, there is no before and after, as noted by Steward:

Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You drive to work in it. You drive home in it. You sit in your home, staring into a box. It erodes your soul, while the box that is your body inevitably withers… then dies, whereupon it is placed in the ultimate box, to slowly decompose… think of it as a temporary state of being.”

Frank Langell in The Box

The button is bright red, the person is someone they do not know. The Box implies a horrific, ubiquitous evolution of the button and the box: Steward seems fourth dimensional in nature, speaking for “the ones who control the lighting in rooms of infinite maps and monitoring”: proto-internet connectivity seized by those who see the cycles of spacetime as nonlinear. Eventually, “someone you do not know” will erode into “countries you’ve never heard of” exploited by companies that most middle class people will pay monthly membership fees for. This truth, forced to be instantly and cynically dismissed by the rapid expansion of capital, is the button. The Lewis’ are an early test audience, we’re the happy customers.

The Box elevates the daily minutiae of capitalist cruelty into the science fiction moral framework of a Twilight Zone yarn. The Lewis’ didn’t need to send their kid to a private school and they certainly didn’t need a million dollars, but they exist in a framework that requires these anxieties and awareness as a base barrier for entry. Before all of these needs, however, they didn’t need to kill someone. In moments of vulnerability, in moments of compassion, they’re free of terror, even after pressing the button. When the eventual ironic tragedy of The Box plays its final sinister note upon the Lewis’, their resignation to their situation is their freedom. Compassionately and tenderly realizing their vulnerability, they find themselves free from the Hell surrounding them. Steward, simply and sympathetically, lays the lesson out as follows: “If human beings are unable or unwilling to sacrifice individual desires for the greater good of your species, you will have no chance for survival.” He knows why his question begins with murder, and not the million dollars.

Justin Micallef (@justinrmicallef) is a critic who loves nothing ironically. Find his work at The Outhousers, Loser City, Detroit Music Magazine and your nearest bathroom stall.