Melodrama and the Richard Kelly death drive

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In Kelly’s first two films there comes a time where the only thing left is for all of the distraction of the mise en scene and character agency to fall away, and we realise that we are in a tunnel, being pulled by some ineluctable force into death, into peace and into terror, and the film shudders to move now with the light-headed inevitability of that slow first step into the dark, and it is elegiac and you are laughing and crying and you look around for help and Kelly is the filmmaker who says I’m sorry, and it’s okay. The Box starts with this and holds it for ninety minutes.

Diaz gives a steady, uneasy space to the performance expected of her. She is always a step away from alienation, and The Box makes that known. In her best loved parts she strikes lines with this flailing energy, as though she knows she has to act fast and unthinking before she catches up with herself, suddenly embarrassed about the fact that it’s not her on set or screen. When the cut comes too late, we catch discomfort in smiles and grimaces. The Box is always too late: she produces every word, every gesture, already knowing how they will linger in the air for scrutiny, like that famous last thing you said that nobody responded to when you were high and then occupied the entire air of the room. Her face curls closed before the line is out, as if in the hopes she might go unheard, that is until the moments where it cracks and she confesses I love you and I know you better than you know yourself. The existential preoccupations of Matheson’s original text are dismissed by Diaz’s clumsy humanity. It’s breathtaking.

In any case it’s consciously stage-like beyond just its references to Sartre. The line readings are already those desperate non sequiturs that are meant just as noise before silence, the living before the dead, stage characters before the curtain of narrative telos, trying to stall for time to figure out what they were ever worth. Butler, Chassagne and Pallett’s curiously assured score reaches in that drunken crescendo of misplaced melodrama right from the beginning, trying to find catharsis but just circling and circling and growing more agitated with each unresolved lap of a piece it really thought was good enough. Our ears are with it but before long it gets the message; melodies come uncertain having now showed their hand, and grinding drones undermine them as just instruments being played for a movie. That splitting occurs in the visual field as well. Diaz occupies her own flattened blue layer, pushed to the surface of the screen before the interiors and streets that appear digitally pre-rendered. She doesn’t know how she got here and is too afraid to ask. Marsden is out of time, acting in 2009 while their peers operate within a nexus of branching times, like ancient bureaucrats.

The problem is not that The Box begins here in this state but that it doesn’t end here too: Kelly opts to have a final stretch where the work should just abruptly stop. Life on the collapsing stage is swapped out for a focus on the mechanics of the stage itself. Agents and systems contributing to the Kelly death drive reveal themselves on the surface of the text where their influence has already been experienced on an affective, human level for over an hour. Kelly’s best filmmaking comes when content-less questions are answered with everything, staring down the absurd with an even more sublime altruism, and The Box finds him in this mode intuitively. So why backpedal and labour over its mechanistic philosophical implications? He can’t leave them out, but here he approaches them from the wrong angle. Kelly is that nerd who has to chase his every feeling through an escalating tangle of paranoiac freak outs — unlike his better received peers however, conspiracy for him is not an epistemological pursuit or license for reliable genre beats, but a lapping ontological search that always, always comes down to trust and belonging. Even his apocalypticism hinges not on cynicism but the opposite, on that Superman complex reworked for infinite self-sacrifice that he believes is in all of us.

And I repeat myself, this gets itself wrong, it starts with the book to set itself in motion and then it ends with the book too. The Kelly sublime is revealed to owe its debt to plot machinations and not vice versa. In having to explain the question of being from within an inherited literary system it goes from a film like nothing you’ve ever seen before to a thriller about a box: it’s not the idea that under certain conditions water can become a portal that is interesting but that the motel pool over there is surrounded by people and is glowing, it’s not the logistics of pushing the button that matters but that there’s a button at all, it’s not the alien surveillance network that freaks us out but the experience of living in this state which is to say there’s a man at your window right now watching you and when you go to look he might still be there. And it’s not that she did the wrong thing, but that she’s a good person.

Given the reception of his last film, The Box can ultimately be viewed as a drop in directorial confidence and a concession to reified genre structures as dramatised in the battle between Langella and Diaz, standing for cynicism/exposition and fallibility/feeling respectively. Although it is obvious where Kelly wants the fight to go, reverse-engineering its epiphany gives the former the final word and ultimately trivialises both.

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