Name-checking philosophers and/or philosophical works is too easy, and that’s exactly why The Box annoyed me when I read it last year. Those of you who have seen the movie—and hopefully that’s all of you, since this article will be loaded with spoilers—will know exactly what I’m talking about: No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play that’s either about a ménage à trois gone horribly awry, or purgatory. In the finished film, Norma (Cameron Diaz) is shown teaching this to a class and having some sort of indistinct involvement in a school production of a play. It’s shifted much more to the background in the film than in the screenplay, which introduces it in the most random possible way and then turns it into the lynchpin of the entire story.
Doing that is lazy and obvious, the equivalent of shrugging shoulders and muttering, “I have absolutely nothing to say thematically, so I’ll let a 65-year-old play do the legwork for me.” It was a disappointingly hackneyed move from a writer who’s better than that.
Let me backtrack, though. The differences between the script I read and the finished film are many, and the use of No Exit is only one of the things Kelly changed at some point during the development process.
In the script, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) is a cipher. We don’t learn his baffling, somewhat laughable backstory until nearly the end of the story (as opposed to the film opening with a series of hints about who he is and what happened to him). The script also shifts the button-pushing from the first act to the midpoint. The first half of the script, apart from the weirdness of Steward’s offer, is surprisingly normal and mundane. It’s simply the story of a family extended beyond its means, with Kelly hammering away at points about social climbing, status symbols, and greed before Norma finally feels backed into a corner and pushes the button. It also explores the deep flaws in both Norma and her NASA engineer husband, Arthur (James Marsden), whose motivations revolve around a combination of greed, vanity, and self-aggrandizement. More than anything else—more than the desperation to keep her son in private school or keep their home (the latter of which is a subplot excised completely from the film)—Norma pushes the button because she cares more about a fancy shoe to hide her foot deformity than the life of another human being.
This differs quite significantly from Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story “Button, Button,” on which the film is very loosely based. “Button, Button” is a pretty simple morality play, similar to Matheson’s Twilight Zone scripts (indeed, Matheson adapted the story for the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone). When Norma pushes the button, it’s Arthur who dies—because, you see, the agreement is that she’ll receive $50,000 but someone she doesn’t know will die, and she never really knew her husband. Get it?! It’s kind of pat, but I did like that the $50,000 comes as the result of her husband’s life insurance payout instead of Steward arriving with a briefcase full of cash.
My knowledge of philosophy doesn’t extend much beyond the 100-level college course I took, so I defer to a much more educated (and much more anonymous) friend who holds a degree in the subject. He tells me the original short story fits the existential philosophy espoused by Sartre quite neatly.
In both the movie and the script, the button-pushing is intercut with an unknown man murdering his wife for unknown reasons, a disturbing scene that is all but dropped until much later. Once Norma and Arthur get the money, the second half of the script starts by focusing on the couple’s confusion and paranoia. Arthur, who had the foresight to write down Steward’s license plate number, asks Norma’s father (a police sergeant) to run the plates. He calls back with a name and phone number. They call the number, and on the other end an old woman rambles inaccurately about the Prometheus myth before reciting a Dewey decimal number. Anybody who’s seen a Richard Kelly movie would not bat an eyelash when Arthur and Norma make the decision to go to the public library and find the book.
It’s No Exit, and in the script, this is the first reference to it. Norma (who’s a science teacher here) has a vague recollection of reading it, but neither understands the significance. However, a date is written in the book. They find the newspaper for that date and find the headline is all about photos downloaded from the Martian probe Arthur worked on. This makes him remember Arlington Steward, a low-level NASA employee who got hit by lightning (and allegedly died) the day the photos downloaded.
They split up, and Arthur’s cornered by a librarian who turns out to be Steward’s mother (and the woman on the other end of their earlier phone call) while Steward approaches Norma. This is followed by a long, bizarre, somewhat tedious dream/hallucination sequence in which Norma and Arthur find themselves in No Exit, before arbitrarily waking up in their beds, at home, shortly before the wedding of Norma’s sister.
The presence of No Exit is an enormous problem in this incarnation of the script. “Button, Button” fits with existential philosophy. The Box‘s third act speculates on whether or not Arthur and Norma are trapped in purgatory, a la No Exit. However, The Box itself doesn’t really jibe with existential philosophy. At least, not on the surface. My friend shrugged off existential parallels, but something intrigued him.
In the script, more than in the movie, a strong emphasis is put on Norma rationalizing pushing the button by saying it’s all for her son, Walter. She’s about to lose her faculty tuition discount, which means her son may have to—gasp!—attend public school. If the real core of the story revolves around the decision to finance Walter’s formal education, that’s right in line with Nietzsche’s observation that Socrates deserved his fate—a death sentence for “corrupting” children (i.e., providing them a secular education that opposed their religious education). Since the script, more than the film, makes a small point of pitting science against faith, the fact that Norma’s a science teacher and Arthur works for NASA is right in line with Nietzsche’s strange parable.
The foundation of existentialism revolves around self-delusion and the creation of one’s own morality. This ties quite deftly into pretty much everything The Box is about—Norma justifying her greed and vanity and deciding to eschew any hope of being a good person because she wants (more than needs) the money. Because existentialism isn’t nihilism—Nietzsche believed that Christianity had developed an outdated morality that people followed out of obligation and fear rather than the legitimate desire to be a good person. Kierkegaard used the example of God forcing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac: if Abraham believes in a good, just God, then he’s just going through the motions. He knows God’s just fucking with him, that he’ll never really have to kill his son. In that context, Abraham’s actions are as fraudulent as God’s test.
For all its scatterbrained insanity, The Box started to seem like the same sort of fractured morality tale, only about secular characters whose actions aren’t tied to a belief in God. To extend the Abraham mentality, Norma and Arthur are the equivalent of Abraham feeling a strong compulsion to kill Isaac. Not hearing the voice of God—just that nagging voice inside him, telling him to kill. Part of him knows it’s wrong, but he falls into that trap of self-delusion, justifying it as a righteous action. If God exists and is testing Abraham—without revealing himself, and without Abraham believing God is there at all—then He will punish Abraham if Abraham can’t stop himself from killing Isaac.
So, then, does that make Steward God, or an agent of God? Is the button Isaac, and Norma failed? These are the questions the script rushes through in its last few pages, never giving a clear indication of what’s truly going on. But if it is purgatory, and if this is a test of their worth to enter heaven after an undisclosed period in purgatory, this means they failed the test. So the ending, in which Arthur sacrifices Norma to save Walter, fits in a demented way. Arthur “passed” his portion of the test, but Norma failed. One can only assume getting shot in the face while in purgatory does not cause a person to ascend to heaven.
All of these thoughts are largely rendered moot by the finished film, which downplays the existential concepts but ups the weird/sci-fi/conspiracy quotient by a huge degree. Take, for instance, a scene not present in the script, in which Arthur drives home babysitter Dana (Gillian Jacobs). On the ride home, she starts saying many strange things. Then, she gets a nosebleed and passes out. Arthur examines her driver’s license and finds (1) it’s from Massachusetts, and (2) her name is listed as Sarah. When he finally gets her home, she walks down the narrow, dimly lit hallway of her apartment. Every single resident steps out into the hall to glare at her while she shuffles, terrified, toward her dingy place. Inside, she stares at walls covered with maps and photos that hint at some sort of pattern.
Dana/Sarah is never seen again, and this pattern/conspiracy never comes up in any overt way. Is it a red herring, foreshadowing Steward’s apparent mind-control powers (an element not present in the screenplay), or another layer of symbolism that ties into the three free-standing cubes of water Arthur must choose to enter in the film’s version of the library scene? To put it another way: What the hell is going on?
Therein lies the problem with the film. I enjoyed many aspects of it: The surprisingly strong performances from Diaz and Marsden, the pitch-perfect mid-’70s aesthetic, the apparent homages to the conspiracy thrillers popular during the film’s timeframe, and the Donnie Darko-esque combination of domestic satire and unrelenting mindfuckery. I don’t feel like I wasted my time watching it, and I would probably take the time to watch it again to try to unpack whatever the hell is happening in Kelly’s twisted mind. I’m just pretty sure it has little to do with existential themes—in the film, No Exit itself has become the red herring, a source of foreshadowing and nothing more.
It’s strange to say that I didn’t like the script, because at this point it sounds like I’m championing it over the film. I grew to appreciate the script—even though I still didn’t like it much—once I started to see the odd, existential throughlines buried in its seeming aimlessness. They gave The Box a cohesiveness that Kelly lacked in both Donnie Darko and especially Southland Tales. The film abandoned that, which leads me to the only probable conclusion: I read way too much into the script. That’s not to say what I read into it wasn’t there, but I can’t imagine Kelly had any conscious intent to make the script this coherent. That’s just not his style.