The Box is a 2009 science fiction horror film based on the 1970 short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson, which was previously adapted into an episode of the 1980s incarnation of The Twilight Zone. The film is written and directed by Richard Kelly and stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a couple who receive a box from a mysterious man that offers them one million dollars if they press the button sealed within the dome on top of the box. Production for the film began in November of 2007 and concluded in February of 2008.
The film begins with a CIA internal memo being typed across the screen. It states that a man named Arlington Steward has recovered from severe burn wounds and is delivering units related to the Mars project.
The film then opens up in 1976 with Norma and Arthur Lewis cuddling in bed after a night of passionate lovemaking (this scene has been removed from screenings in North America to conform to a PG 13 rating), and awaking at 5:45 am as the doorbell rings. Norma goes downstairs and looks through the peephole seeing a black car drive off. Upon opening the door, she sees a package on her doorstep. Inside, she and her husband find a wooden box with a button protected by a glass dome, locked with a key, and a note, reading Mr. Steward will come at 5:00 pm.
Arthur goes to work at NASA, where he works in optics, and helped in designing the camera on the Viking Mars probe. He finds because he failed his psych exam, he has been rejected from the astronaut program despite good test scores and glowing recommendations. Norma goes to her job as a teacher at an elite private school teaching literature, where they are discussing Sartre’s vision of Hell. One of her students remarks on her limp, after which she shows her class her disfigured right foot, missing four toes. Later that day Norma returns home and confesses her fear of losing their home, due to lack of money. That is when Arlington Steward appears at their door. Norma looks at the clock and realizes it is 5:00 pm.
Arlington offers them one million dollars if they press the button sealed in the dome. The catch is that someone they do not know will die. Norma and Arthur contemplate whether or not they would be able to cope with someone’s death on their hands. After much discussion as to whether or not they should press the button, and some tinkering with the box (Arthur finds nothing inside it), Norma suddenly jerks forward and hits it.
Arlington returns and presents Norma and Arthur with the million, without asking whether they pressed the button or not. He informs the couple that whoever receives the offer next, they will surely not know, implying that when the next people press the button, one of them, or their son, will be at risk. Arthur storms after Arlington and attempts to return the million, but Arlington drives off.
A 911 call is shown, where someone has been shot. The police enter the house and find a woman shot through the heart, and a little girl locked in the bathroom upstairs.
Arthur and Norma then attend a wedding rehearsal dinner, where Arthur is instructed to select a present from a table. A student of Norma’s, the one who prompted her to reveal her disfigurement, holds up two fingers to Arthur. Arthur then sees a box much like the one left on their doorstep, with the button in it, and chooses that one. He and Norma find a poor quality picture of Arlington inside.
Norma’s sister tells Arthur that the student Arthur saw was the one who made fun of his wife’s foot. Arthur meets and asks Norma’s dad (who is a police officer) to run the license plate number of Arlington’s car. Norma receives a phone call (she is informed by a waiter whose nose begins to bleed as he’s leading her to the phone). It is Arlington, who scolds her for allowing her husband to make contact with the police (Arlington somehow knows Arthur has spoken to Norma’s father). Arthur angrily approaches the student from Norma’s class and yells at him for making fun of Norma. He then storms out of the party, with Norma following him. As they start their car, they see “No Exit” (the title of the Sartre play they went to see earlier) written into the frost on their windshield.
When they get home, Arthur takes their babysitter, Dana, home. Dana had earlier gone down into the basement with their son Walter, to see Arthur’s Mars collection. As they are driving, Dana acts strangely, telling Arthur to “look into the light” to solve his problems. Her nose begins to bleed and she passes out. Arthur attempts to wake her up and finds her drivers license, which shows her name is not Dana, but Sara, and she is from Boston. He reaches the motel, where “Dana” has been staying and she wakes up with a start. She tells Arthur it’s not safe for him there, and to look in the mirror because that’s the only place with the answer. She then hurries away. In the motel, every door she passes opens and a startled looking person stares her down. She reaches her room, where she has a large map and pictures of Arthur, Norma, and Walter.
At a supermarket, Norma is approached by a panicked woman who tells her to look up a certain call number in the library, and not to trust her husband, before passing out with a bloody nose. Arthur finds out that Arlington’s license plate is registered to the NSA. He asks Norma’s father if he can go with him to see the house where the shooting mentioned earlier took place. Once there, he finds pictures of Arlington and a picture of a Human Resources book, and a library call number.
Norma and Arthur both visit the library, separately. Norma avoids Arthur, as instructed by the woman in the supermarket. Norma find a film reel, which shows Arlington prior to his disfigurement. Arthur is followed by a crowd of startled looking people. He finds himself in a large hall filled with more scared looking people. He approaches a woman he learns is Arlington’s wife, and she tells him to follow her. He is presented with three “gateways”, made of hovering water. Two lead to eternal damnation, one to salvation. Remembering the student who held up two fingers, Arthur picks gate two. He enters the water and finds himself whirling through whiteness.
Norma is also led by two hollow looking women to Arlington. He asks her how she felt when she saw his disfigurement, and she says she felt love, because of her foot. Many years ago, her brother dropped a barbell on her foot and when she went to the doctor he put it in an X-ray machine and forgot about her, destroying the tissue in four of her toes. Arlington informs Norma that he was struck by lightning, and can now communicate with “those who control the lightning”. Norma begins to cry and Arlington takes her hand.
Norma is suddenly laying on her bed, with Arthur suspended above her in the same hovering water he stepped into earlier. Norma moves away just before Arthur falls out of the water. The water falls too, going all the way down their stairs. When cleaning up, Walter demands to know what is going on. Norma and Arthur do not answer him.
More drama occurs and eventually, at the wedding of Norma’s sister, their son Walter is kidnapped. Arthur is taken away by a gun-toting former employee of NASA. He is the same man who shot his wife, as earlier seen in the 911 call. He reveals to Arthur that he had to choose between his wife or his daughter. He shows Arthur the book seen earlier in the picture, and the water portals or “triptychs”. They are then stopped by a man in a Santa Claus uniform, ringing a bell. As the two men are trying to figure out what is going on, they are hit by a large truck.
We then see Arthur emerge from a NASA warehouse, which has been surrounded by military. He is taken away and told by his NASA friend that everything that happens next will have great ramifications. Arthur and Norma return home and see Arlington in their kitchen. He informs them they face two final options. Their son, Walter, is now deaf and blind. They can either live on with their million dollars, and their disabled son, or Arthur can shoot Norma through the heart, at which point Walter’s sight and hearing will be restored and the million will be placed in a high interest bank account for Walter.
We learned earlier in a warehouse full of startled people, when Arlington’s minion questioned him, that Arlington’s employers are testing the human race to see if they are worth keeping.
Arlington leaves, telling Norma and Arthur on his way out that their son is in the bathroom, locked upstairs. The two of them run upstairs and try to get him out, but cannot. They decide that they must make a choice, and Norma leads Arthur downstairs. Arthur then shoots Norma through the heart, and runs upstairs to find Walter. Walter is passed out on the floor, and does not respond. Soon the police arrive, having been called about the gunshot. Walter wakes up and calls out, as Arthur is lead out of the house. While this is happening, we see another couple make the decision to push the button. As Arthur leaves, we see Arlington arrive at the new couples house. Arthur’s NASA friend informs him he and his son will be taken care of, as Arthur is escorted away by men in uniforms, who put him into a black car before driving off. Arlington, waiting outside and seeing Walter looking out through the home’s window, tips his hat to the boy, and the film ends.