Many years ago, my friend Tim Lehnerer and I were discussing Twilight Zone episodes, not unlike Al Brooks and Dan Aykroyd in the opening of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Tim asked me if I had ever seen the 80s Twilight Zone episode “Button, Button,” based on the short story of the same name. When I told him I hadn’t, he was struck with malicious glee.
“What do you mean, you’ve never heard of ‘Button, Button’?”
“Button, Button” is the story of a couple who are approached by what looks like a travelling salesman. But, wait! This isn’t your ordinary travelling salesman interrupting your life with his unmistakeable stench of bourbon and regret! No, this sinister figure has nothing to sell, he simply presents the couple with a small box.
The deal is simple: if they push the button on top of the box, someone the couple doesn’t know will die. In exchange, they’ll receive a lump sum of money. The salesman then leaves, giving them 24 hours to decide.
Naturally, the couple pushes the button. When the salesman returns, he gives them a briefcase full of cash and takes the box. Confronted with a million questions, the salesman ominously replies that the couple needn’t worry, he’s giving the box to someone they don’t even know.
See? That’s an awesome oddball story with a perfect ending. Unfortunately, no one else knows how to tell it.
When I saw the actual episode, the story was weighed down with bad acting and dialogue. Then I read the original story, which was also a let-down.
Now comes Richard Kelly, writer-director of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, to offer his take on “Button, Button” with The Box. Kelly writes the same kind of story he always does: he creates a mystery that can only be solved by time-travel, mysticism and not making any sense.
The first half-hour of The Box follows my earlier description to the letter, but things take a turn for the horrific and surreal when the couple (played her by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) begin to tail the “salesman” (played by Frank Langella). It turns out Langella is possessed by aliens after being hit by lightning! But the aliens are benevolent—and possibly representations of a Christian God—and are merely testing us. Or something.
Skip this film. If you want to experience this story done right, have someone describe it to you by a roaring campfire some night. That’s the only way it works.