What makes the premise of this intriguing film so satisfying is its simplicity. A middle class couple facing financial difficulties is presented with a choice: push a button and they will be given a million dollars in cash ... and, someone they don't know will die. The problem is that the filmmakers develop an overly elaborate and inexplicably bizarre back story packed with visually intriguing ideas that never really go anywhere in order to account for why they were given the choice in the first place. It's not that it doesn't make sense, and it's not (as another reviewer suggests) that I wasn't paying attention or came into it expecting something else ... I get it and I get what Richard Kelly was going for and I actually kind of enjoyed the film all along but it didn't all add up and for many elements of the film the more you think about them the more hokey they begin to seem. Like the three watery portals that, at one point, James Marsden's character is presented with and told he must choose one and enter, with an ominous warning about the consequences of choosing incorrectly. Sure, they looked cool, but what was the point? It's not clear whether he chose correctly or what was really at stake and he just ends up somewhere else all wet and confronted with a more important question. Unlike some of the other "tests" that are given throughout the film, this one didn't have any kind of clear moral implications.
It's a fun watch, though; it's creepy and atmospheric throughout, and kept me intrigued for the most part throughout. The look of the film captures the early '70s nicely. I liked the connection with Sartre's infernal classic No Exit
- and for a while it felt like the aim of the film was to reinvent the themes of that play on a larger scope. I also thought it was clever (even if a bit cynical, and with shades of misogyny) that the choice represented by the box was delivered to a woman, who ended up pressing the button but shared the consequences with her husband, and it was hard not to see the red round button as a kind of update to Eden's apple. It's just that in the end all of the metaphysical and moral weight that the film had managed to build and sustain starts to sag, and the mystery that felt like an elaborate theological and existential puzzle is mostly resolved (with a few deliberately loose ends) and you are left with an overly baroque and even somewhat silly but unfunny cosmic joke taken way too seriously (of course, that's not a bad description of life, the universe and everything from a certain point of view ... maybe that of Sartre).
Still, I don't want to leave on that note, since it strikes me as too harsh - I'm being harsh because my hopes were pretty high. Richard Kelly's got a lot of potential and has some great ideas and knows how to translate them to the screen - it's just he has too many ideas and apparently no one there to help him eliminate the excessive -- the best scripts find a way to deliver maximum intensity and reflection by the simplest means. This one, at least, is much more tight than the at times brilliant but mostly incoherent Southland Tales
but lacks the simplicity of the first incarnation of Donnie Darko
(I thought the director's cut of Darko showed tendencies of the problem I'm describing here: once he starts to explain the "physics" behind the intriguing concept, it starts to get hokey and over-elaborate). This latest film is well worth watching and I thought it was quite entertaining, but more on par with an overlong but decent episode of X-Files or Twilight Zone (like the one it's based on) than the intensely existential science fiction minor masterpiece it might have been.