written by: Richard Kelly (story by: Richard Matheson)
produced by: Richard Kelly, Sean McKittrick & Kelly McKittrick
directed by: Richard Kelly
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.
Writer-director Richard Kelly's new film is being described by some as psychological horror while others are seeing it as a science fiction thriller. This shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with his films (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) since it's so obvious he defies those genres and how we've come to know them while incorporated them into one absurd film. That's not an insult. An original, well-made film that hooks you despite it's absurdity can still be intriguing when it's not boring, maybe even entertaining. It's not hard to get lost in this film's tone and atmosphere but it's also easy to get frustrated at how convaluted and overambicious it gets. That may wind up pushing your buttons which could be exactly what Kelly is aiming for.
The film starts out like an episode of The Twilight Zone and sure enough, it was made into one back in the mid 80's. Kelly adapts the short story "Button, Button" by the great Richard Matheson into the first 15 minutes of the story. But then he jettisons it into an assortment of confounded directions.
First, we read an internal CIA memo typed across the screen. It states that a severe burn victim named Arlington Steward has recovered and is delivering units related to the Mars project.
We are then introduced to Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis, a loving married couple living in Richmond, Virginia circa 1976. They live in a nice brick home in a the seemingly idyllic suburbs where a school bus picks their son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone) right at their front step. Arthur works at NASA Langley doing research for the Viking mission to Mars and Norma teaches high school literature, specifically Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. When Arthur doesn't get the job he was hoping for and Norma is told that she will no longer get a discounted on Walter's tuition, they start to realize that they will soon no longer be able to afford the life they wish to maintain.
Enter the mysterious Mr. Steward (Frank Langella), a polite, well-dressed older man with a grotesquely disfigured face offering them a life-changing opportunity. He presents them with a box that has a unit inside containing a button. He gives them an envelope with a key to unlock the bubble dome housing the button. Steward tells them if they press the button two things will happen. First, someone, somewhere in the world whom they do not know, will die. Second, they will receive one million dollars in cash. If they do nothing with it, Steward returns and takes the box back, never to be seen again. The box will then be reset and giving to someone else whom they do not know. However they choose, Steward will return the next day at 5pm.
Kelly presents viewers with the required "what would you do?" as the couple deal with their moral struggle both together and individually. At first, logic is at play as they both wonder how any of it could be real. How can they even know that this button will kill anyone? Is it an impossible choice? Is the decision obvious? Norma and Arthur then must decide if they could handle being responsible for someone's death. Since Kelly doesn't portray this couple as destitute, it's hard to truly feel compassion for two people who already admit they live beyond their means and want to keep it that way. What remains on their mind is that money would help them with the life they desire. Not the life they need, mind you.
That's where Matheson's script ends and we enter The Richard Kelly Zone. It's a dimension with that 70's glow, a sharp HD visual delight and a compelling score by Arcade Fire. Where nose bleeds are at every turn, zombie-like people talk in catatonic mantras, and hotel swimming pools become portals to the afterlife. Admittance into such a world need only require a push of a red button. No, that's not a spoiler since it wouldn't be a feature-length film if the button wasn't pushed. Unfortunately, the film is thrust the into the same sci-fi silliness that director Alex Proyas dropped on us earlier this year with the incomprehensible Knowing.
That's too bad since Kelly opens up with such promise and suspense only to push you through several trippy Kubrickian sequences that distract us with more questions. There could very well be the work of aliens here, or divine intervention, maybe a top-secret government agency....it's anyone's guess really and clearly that's the way Kelly wants it.
This is a film where the plot and far-reaching concepts take the spotlight over the acting. That wouldn't be so bad if there was a growing strength in the story or if the acting had felt real. Langella does stand out by bringing some class to his ominous bad guy that could have veered toward camp. It's ironic that the guy who played Skeletor at one time is now playing the bad guy with half his face off. Too often though the emotions of the two leads felt forced and their behavior unrealistic. It was difficult to detect the needed chemistry between Diaz and Marsden which is problemic since it was already hard to feel sorry for these two. Plus, both of their southern accents seemed unnecesary and distracting since they were inconsistent at best. I wound up feeling worse for their son, who always seemed to get brushed off to the wayside. No surprise really, since children are too often treated like a device in these stories.
While Kelly's feverish imagination tends to swallow this movie whole, it really is quite involving while you're watching it. During reflection and post-viewing discussion is where all the plotholes and flaws become clear. But, who knows, this may become one of those midnight favorites at the local art house. Like the titular box, it's hard to take your eyes off the film and decipher what it's all about when you're sitting there staring at it. Only when you spend time away from it do you start to questions its real function. It may be missing the quirk and twisted charm of Donnie Darko but neveretheless fans of that cult classic will still want to check this out.
- Veteran character actor, Basil Hoffman, was also in the original version of this story when "Button, Button" aired on "The Twilight Zone: Profile in Silver/Button, Button (#1.20)" (1986).
- This marks the first feature-length film scored by members of the Canadian band Arcade Fire (Win Butler, R�gine Chassagne and Owen Pallett)
- It also marks the first PG-13 film to be directed by Richard Kelly.
- Charlie Clouser's score from 2004's Saw was used for the trailer.
- On the commentary of Tony Scott's "Domino",Richard Kelly outright dismissed shooting a 1970's period piece with a digital camera. But after seeing David Fincher's
"Zodiac", Kelly's position quickly changed and he was quoted saying, "It can be done."
- Production began in November 2007 and concluded in February 2008.
- Most of the filming took place in the Boston, Massachusetts area, with scenes shot in downtown Boston, South Boston, Waltham, Ipswich, Winthrop, Milton, Medfield, Quincy, Kingston, and North Andover, as well as other localities.
- Some filming took place on the Milton Academy campus, and a large indoor set was built inside a former Lucent Technologies building in North Andover to recreate a NASA laboratory.
- The production crew also journeyed to NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., to shoot a number of scenes for the film.
- Kelly's father had worked at NASA Langley in the 1970s and 80s.
- Many background extras were reused in different scenes, and people with period correct 60s and 70s cars were encouraged to participate.
- The film was originally scheduled for release on October 30, 2009, but on July 31, 2009, it was announced the release date was to be delayed to November 6, 2009.